ZAPPA - REVIEW
ZAPPA – REVIEW
Director/writer – Alex Winter
Lifelong fan GARY STEEL knows a thing or two about Frank Zappa, so who better than to pass judgement on the first official documentary on the eccentric composer/guitarist.
There are few figures in popular music who inspire such fervent devotion by the few and such incomprehension bordering on outright repulsion by the many. Zappa appreciators can come across as cultish because their fandom is so comprehensively challenged by the arbiters of good taste in music and civil behaviour. In reality, get those fans together and they’re a diverse and motley bunch of freaks. I should know: back when I ran a record store-cum-espresso joint, I held several hugely popular Zappa film nights where a wholly unofficial variety of video clips were shown to riotous appreciation.
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Generally, documentaries about musical figures come in one of two stripes: artist-endorsed or unofficial. Both have their issues. The former almost always omits the important personal stuff that the artist, or their family, or their estate, don’t want in the public domain. Artist-endorsed documentaries tend to be glossed-over PR exercises. So-called ‘unofficial’ documentaries are often more revealing and insightful, but they’re stymied by lack of permission to play more than a few seconds of music at a time, and interview requests are often refused by musicians not willing to take any flak.
While there are many documentaries about Frank Zappa – some of them going into the specifics of different periods of his musical life – ZAPPA is the first one to be endorsed by the Zappa Family Trust. Former Bill & Ted actor Alex Winter – who apparently had already made several well-received documentaries – approached Zappa’s widow, Gail, a year or so before she died in 2015. Winter was not only a long-time Zappa fan but was on a mission to digitise the artist’s legendary archive, which he did with the support of fans through a Kickstarter campaign. I contributed to that in a small way.
The upshot was that he got to take his pick of rare film footage found in the archive in his homage to his hero. And make no mistake about it, ZAPPA is Winter’s homage. What it is not, however, is sycophantic or dull. The two hours and nine minutes of Zappa don’t feel as though the Zappa family had its sticky tentacles all over the film, although son Ahmet Zappa’s active involvement as one of the producers casts some doubt over whether siblings Moon and Dweezil (who were at each other’s throats during the early days of the film’s development) were given any active involvement.
What’s great about ZAPPA, however, is that Winter has resisted his fanboy urge to use footage merely for its rarity value, and his instincts as a documentarian are applied in the final product. He could have made a film for the hardcore fans, or alternatively made it for the general public. Instead, he’s set out to make a meaningful and insightful documentary and to do what a good documentary should – look at the sum total of an artist’s life with broad gestures, but no lack of subtlety or intricate detail.
I had read that ZAPPA was to be a film about the man, not the music, but that’s not quite right. Anyone looking for a real insight on the person might get more from (Zappa’s former secretary) Pauline Butcher’s book, Freak Out! My Life With Frank Zappa, or the books written by his brother, and one of his lovers. What we do get is a number of perspectives on his character by former backing musicians, and the revelation (not!) that he fucked around. Touring rock musician of the ‘60s and ‘70s accused of infidelity, shock-horror! It’s a #me-too moment of ZAPPA that inevitably feels a bit trumped up. Yes, of course this American male of Sicilian origin had sexist views typical of his contemporaries. And there are very possibly some risible tales of Zappa’s sexual conquests still to come out of the woodwork. But, as Kelly Fisher Lowe’s book The Words And Music Of Frank Zappa points out, his work constituted a sustained attack on The American Male. As Zappa himself used to put it, “I’m an equal opportunity offender.”
While the film avoids those wee nuggets of info that Zappa nerds are probably looking for, there is plenty of music, and it does a great job of clearly explaining the composer’s abiding influences, interests and motivations. This is no easy task with someone as complex as Zappa, and the nature of a two-hour documentary means that lots of important (to fans) stuff is completely omitted, but that’s okay.
The film is partly narrated by Zappa himself, although the conceptual continuity (to use one of Zappa’s own phrases) is somewhat broken by the smorgasbord of interviews with former musicians, not all of them in linear or sequential order. I think Zappa would have admired Winter’s overarching approach, the tone and the flow of his movie and it’s occasional idiosyncratic edits and other diversions. One of Zappa’s greatest talents, after all, was the almost filmic way he edited his music.
Frank Zappa is a guy whose music, albums, shows and general character inspired English journalist Ben Watson to write a 597-page tome called The Negative Dialectics Of Poodle Play back in 1994. The book is crammed full of dense, disorientating prose and whole chapters explaining the deep meaning of album sleeve art. This is the kind of madness (and I mean that in the positive sense) that Zappa inspired with his work, which Zappa himself described to me in 1990 as “one heck of a thing to comprehend.”
Getting a grip on what Frank Zappa was about is not an easy thing to do, but Winter successfully delineates the character, his intentions, his struggles and his achievements in two hours and nine minutes, which is some mean feat.
Is ZAPPA of any interest to the general public, or even to music fans who may have little knowledge or interest in his music? Well, yes… with a few caveats. I love documentaries, and will happily watch one about a band, artist or musical genre I detest if the history behind it is interesting and I can glean a perspective that enriches my appreciation. I guess I’m in the minority there! There’s one incontestable fact about Frank Zappa, however: regardless of what one thinks of his music, he was a fascinating bloke who lived in fascinating times. ZAPPA shines a light on all that, from the LA freak scene of the ‘60s to the “rock porn” Senate hearings of the ‘80s through to the artist’s short-lived appointment (subsequently nixed by top-level US politicians) by a newly democratised Czechoslovakia as Special Ambassador to the West on Trade & Culture. Zappa was seen as a cultural dissident there through his banned Mothers of Invention albums.
Many key moments are excised, including the fire that destroyed his group’s equipment in 1971 and inspired Deep Purple’s ‘Smoke On The Water’, and his slow recuperation from the near-death experience of being thrown offstage and into the orchestra pit of the Royal Albert Hall by an idiot who didn’t like the way Frank had been looking at his girlfriend. But that’s okay, Zappa’s life would easily make a Netflix series and we don’t want that.
The highlight for me was the genuine enthusiasm and affection with which percussionist Ruth Underwood described her former boss, and her rendition of an eye-wateringly beautiful melody of Zappa’s that he’d carefully concealed by a fast tempo and a complex arrangement. The film makes no bones about the fact that while Zappa was happy to slum it in the pop music arena, his real motivation was to get symphony orchestras to accurately play his “dots on paper” music.
But it’s not all serious, and the film is chock full of sometimes laugh-out-loud quotes by Zappa and those who are willing to talk candidly about their experience of him.
The film begins with an ailing Zappa’s appearance in Prague, and ends with two poignant scenes – one with the composer taking a bow at the triumphant orchestral concerts (later compiled on The Yellow Shark) of his compositions performed in Germany by the Ensemble Modern in 1992. As cancer takes hold and he’s confined to his Los Angeles house/studio, Zappa hosts some amazing music sessions combining the talents of Mongolian throat singers, blues/funk legend Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson and traditional Irish band The Chieftains, and we get a fly-on-the-wall view of this all-too-brief moment.
The only real letdown is the incidental music, which should have been Zappa and only Zappa. For some insane reason, they got some guy called John Frizzell to supply very generic music. I find this bizarre, because the Zappa catalogue is crammed full of interesting instrumental music that would surely have sat beautifully on a documentary about the composer.
Despite this minor fuck-up, ZAPPA comes highly recommended to anyone interested in the history of 20th-century music icons.
* Note – I tried really hard to get the relevant information to be able to write about ZAPPA ahead of its cinema screenings in New Zealand but the only people who ever answered my emails were the ZAPPA film people in the US. They put me onto Umbrella Entertainment in Australia, who were supposedly handling distribution of ZAPPA in New Zealand, but I couldn’t get an answer from them. At all. Despite my enthusiasm for the subject of the film and the fact that I’m a seasoned journalist who happens to be music editor of a cool website called Witchdoctor (and something of a Zappa expert, I guess). I’m aware that ZAPPA is screening from today in quite a few theatres around the country. In all my years reporting on music and film, I’ve never experienced such an inept response to the offer of free publicity. Although I subscribed to the original Kickstarter campaign, which gives me a free digital copy of the film, I’d love to see it on the big screen. But I now feel disincentivised by what, frankly, has been a giant cockup in the film’s distribution here, with almost no advance notice or publicity and some of the independent cinemas prevaricating and changing screening dates and times at will. For those not able to see it at a cinema, it should be turning up on Blu-ray soon, as well as, inevitably, streaming services. The film is already screening on the US version of Amazon Prime, for those with the technology to view it.