Alex Winter’s musical documentary Zappa is a fun movie which frames Frank Zappa the way he should be, as a hero. While this may ring particularly true for fans of the original Mother of Invention, the film is also a must-see for anyone who plugged in a guitar, banged drums, pounded a piano, ruined their teeth on clarinet reeds, or waited for their triangle part to come up in a Julliard School of Music chamber ensemble. It is also for social justice warriors stretching to see beyond the warning labels. The feature documentary is an intimate look at an artist who defied labels, both the record industry ones which curtailed output, and the easy, cheesy, tags of pundits, critics and frightened senate committees.
“This is the beginning of your new future,” Zappa assures an appreciative audience in the archival concert footage which sets the tone. Winter begins the film in the Czech Republic, where Frank was the label. The Czech police, when telling 1960s youth to turn down the rebellious aural insurgence of rock music, called it “Zappa music.” A generation later, the entire country came out to applaud the man who personified the freedom of expression of rock music. Winter’s film posits there may be no other artist who expressed himself as freely as Frank.
The London Symphony Orchestra called Zappa’s time signatures irrational. Zappa wound up performing much of his most difficult orchestral pieces himself on the Synclavier because “Human beings are expensive.” Critics bemoaned his irreverent lyrics, and band members as talented as Steve Vai say Zappa was “a slave to his inner ear” who pushed players to go beyond their musical limitations. This is why musicians like Ruth Underwood would do things like drop out of Julliard to play in this musical unit with the insane structures and insanely beautiful melodies.
Early in the film, Frank says the performances at his 1967 New York City residency at the Garrick Theater were intentionally grating. He says his music is “designed to annoy people just enough to make them question their environment and do something about it.” Zappa wanted his band to help redefine musical entertainment. He did not want to deprive a rock audience from a musical experience outside their genre preference. He wanted them to hear things which had happened musically since the 20s, whether it was experimental composer Edgard Varese or the swinging wit of Spike Jones. “Hippies did not like us,” he admits in an archival interview.
The documentary covers almost every period of Zappa’s career, though not strictly chronological. The film flows as freely as the composer’s compositions. It also features incredible accounts by Frank’s widow Gail Zappa, in one of the last interviews she gave before she died. They speak candidly with musicians Mike Keneally, Ian Underwood, Bunk Gardner, David Harrington, Scott Thunes, and Ray White.
We learn Frank moved into Hollywood western actor Tom Mix’s old cabin, and became the centrifugal force of Laurel Canyon. All the visiting rock musicians came to visit, and the documentary shows all-too-brief clips of a vast array of the talent Zappa received. Pamela Des Barres says everyone from the Rolling Stones to David Bowie popped in. Alice Cooper remembers being delivered over to his savior by Miss Christine of the GTOs, which sets Zappa up to feature footage from the under-acclaimed, all female band of specialized musical aficionados.
The documentary doesn’t hold back on any details. It is very upfront about the relationship between rock stars and groupies. In an archival clip, Frank says his wife has “become accustomed to it over the years.” He says he’s a human being. He likes getting laid. And when he comes home from tour with the clap, his wife gets the penicillin. In an interview for the film, Gail calls it an emotional rollercoaster, but says it was better not to talk about it.
Later in the film Gail says the family moved out of Laurel Canon because of the Manson people. “They were creepy,” Gail says. The thing about the 60s was that you “just knew stuff,” they could feel when something was “in the air.” Prior to this, the Zappa household had quite a few unexpectedly happy things blow onto the property, including Bruce Bickford. The film recounts how Zappa put the animator on his payroll, partially because he was able to scale his fence with film reels tucked under his arms. Zappa’s finances weren’t always fluid, the documentary notes. The Mothers of Invention broke up in 1969 because Zappa went into debt to pay the band. He couldn’t even afford to give them two-weeks’ notice. Ruth Underwood calls Zappa, “consistently contradictory,” and the film notes his standoffish approach to musicians, fans, and celebrity.
Zappa, who made his 1963 on TV debut performing a bicycle duet with the host of The Steve Allen Show,” says he’s spent most of his career “waiting to be disposed of.” The guitar virtuoso with the funny lyrics has a strange relationship to fame. His name is well-known, but his music is not. It could be his titles, which may be unforgettable to longtime fans, but perplex even the staidest talk show hosts. In the film, Frank says he was mostly annoyed when he was on Saturday Night Live in 1976. He found the skits dated, one included Dan Aykroyd, Laraine Newman, and John Belushi as hippies who won’t believe the Mothers of Invention’s 1966 album, Freak Out!, was recorded drug-free. Zappa offered to write funny skits, but was turned down.
Besides the music, the film also tackles Zappa’s 1984 battles with the Parents Music Resource Council (PMRC), and their movement towards putting warning labels on music. It explains how it led to getting Zappa dumped as trade ambassador for Czechoslovakia years later. It gives lip service to the musician’s exploratory attempts at running for president.
The editing, by Mike Nichols, is wonderful, poignant and playful. There is a particularly hysterical clip where Frank’s new baby Moon Unit is filmed on an 8-millimeter camera. It is the cutest of shots, but the music makes it a grand statement, which goes dark. When the baby is tugging, innocently, at Zappa’s hair, it looks positively perilous. This cuts to Ronald Reagan being elected governor of California. Even scarier.
Alex Winter is probably best known for his role as Bill in the Bill & Ted movies, but he is a deft documentary director. His 2015 documentary Deep Web presented a frightening look at the legal boundaries of the internet, and his The Panama Papers (2018) was a hard-hitting long form journalism piece on international corruption. He is having much more fun here. From the home movies to the concert footage, he finds a poignant balance in the life of a busy workaholic perfectionist. The film is a heroic portrait painted with impressionist brush strokes. “It won’t be perfection,” Zappa warns an audience before launching into a filmed concert. “It’ll just be music.” Zappa isn’t perfect, but it hits all the right notes.
Zappa will hit theaters and on demand platforms on November 27.