Documentary Review – Zappa

Actor and filmmaker Alex Winter – the Bill of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure – has made a documentary about the late, great Frank Zappa. It came out on streaming yesterday and I watched as soon as I found out. This is my review. 

This is not the first documentary about Zappa. In fact, there was a pretty good one released in 2016 called Eat That Question. I think maybe that movie and this one make up a complete set. To the extent that I recall Question, I believe it focused more on the rock side of Frank. This one focuses more on Frank the composer.

The documentary shows Frank poring over a vast storehouse of tapes and videos he made over his lifetime. (During his lifetime, Zappa released 62 albums. Since 1994, the Zappa Family Trust has released 50 posthumous albums, making a total of 112 albums.) It shows early home movies and talks about Frank’s father, their life in Baltimore, and their subsequent move to SmallTown. California.

Interestingly, Frank’s first interest was art as his family had zero interest in music. As a teenager, he became enthralled by the music of Edgard Varèse. Frank liked the iconoclastic “off” nature of the music and the fact that percussion was brought to the fore. If you’re curious, here’s a Varese number called “Ionisation” that he mentions:

Zappa was entirely self-taught, going to the library to study books on composition. As mentioned, the movie makes clear that that was his first passion. But since composers of offbeat music don’t make much of a living, Frank picked up the guitar and started playing rock music. (The movie completely overlooks Frank’s love for doo-wop.)

Zappa pulled the original Mothers of Invention together, releasing his first album, the highly influential Freak Out! in 1966. Paul McCartney admitted that Freak Out! was a big influence on Sgt. Pepper.

From then on, Zappa goes back and forth between rock, jazz-rock, and symphonic works. Where I think the movie succeeds is in emphasizing Zappa’s love for composing. He often didn’t care if anybody heard it, as long as he heard it played by an orchestra and could record it.

Where I think the movie is less successful is in emphasizing the fact that Zappa was incredibly popular with a rock audience, many of whom paid no attention at all for the most part to his orchestrated work. (Like ME.) For one thing, Zappa was one of the best guitarists I’ve ever heard. Hell, he’s got three volumes of music called Shut Up and Play Your Guitar.

Also, after they talk about Frank getting pushed offstage by some asshole in London in 1971, they jump ahead to the late ’70s and start talking about “Valley Girl.” Are you fucking kidding me? I mean, I liked that song.

But they literally say not one single word about some of Frank’s best stuff: Hot Rats, Waka/Jawaka, Over-Nite Sensation, Roxy & Elsewhere. This is a run of great stuff and it’s like overlooking the Stones string of late ’60’s/early ’70’s stuff.

Personally, I think this comes from director Winter’s lack of true familiarity with the guy’s music and history. In an interview, he said he found Frank’s life compelling. So I think he comes at it less as a fan to a filmmaker who found an interesting subject.

The doc does go into his relationship with his kids, his testifying in front of Congress about freedom of speech and his connection with the Czechoslovakian freedom fighters.

All in all, a good – if not great – documentary. If you’re a Zappa fan you definitely want to see it. As mentioned earlier, also go back and watch Eat That Question for the bigger picture. Good interviews with his late wife Gail, band members like Steve Vai. Ruth Underwood is interviewed notably. She felt she was born to play his music and gets very emotional thinking about Frank. (He died of prostate cancer in 1993 at 52 years of age. I’ve rarely seen a picture or video of him without a cigarette.)

And if you don’t feel like doing that, just listen to some of Frank’s stuff. It’s good for what ails ya.


25 thoughts on “Documentary Review – Zappa

  1. Good piece Doc. You can hear Frank allover that Edgard piece. You’re comment on “interesting subject” sounds like you nailed the vibe. Cool thing is people are still finding FZ interesting and viable .I’ve seen various others Frank bits. Always interesting to hear different takes. I will approach with an open mind and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. What would have Frank thought? He was a tough audience. I love that cut you tagged at the end. Do beautiful and Zappa go together>

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    1. I think you would dig it. We both know Frank’s music better than this guy does. But definitely worth watching. As to the tune, I’d love to grab credit for it but that’s how the doc ends.

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    2. BTW, do you follow Aphoristical? There is a piece up there for which I would sorely love to hear CB’s opinion. Good luck keeping it to 10.

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        1. BTW, I caught the last 45 minutes of “High Noon” on the tube the other day. Don’t know how well you recall it but it’s the part just before Gary Cooper and Lloyd Bridges (who I didn’t recall being in it) get into a fight and Coop knocks him out. Still a good flick but boy they used to love to use heavy musical orchestration back then. Very distracting. Anyway, thought you would find that interesting. I look forward to CB’s latest obscure Western tomorrow.

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        2. The whole conceit of High Noon works for me (Yeah they kept sneaking in ‘Dont Forsake Me Oh My Darling’).
          It will be a jazz western (Album) that I pretty well know you’ll dig. Think ‘Blow By Blow’. In fact I will be very curious on your thoughts on the axe playing. Seeing as we are both fond of Frank’s work.


        3. I look forward to that. BTW, I picked up a guitar mag with a bunch of Hendrix lessons. Now I’m in my Jimi period on guitar. Next week I’ll lose interest and I’ll be playing somebody else.


        4. BTW, it was less “Do Not Forsake Me” which I kinda dig and more that heavy “They’re having a fight so it’s time for some overly dramatic heavily orchestrated music” thing they did back then.

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  2. Zappa has an intimidatingly huge discography- i tend to gravitate to the 1970s fusion stuff (including Hot Rats which is 1969 IIRC) where his guitar playing shines, but he has so many different facets.


    1. Yes and as mentioned, other than a reference “Hot Rats” here and there, that era is largely ignored. I think fillmmakers who want to cover interesting musicians but know little of their music should ask around or hire a music consultant. Hell, they interviewed Steve Vai and could have asked him. But it’s all this “Oh, I must get to the emotional core of the man” stuff. Sure, do that. But don’t overlook some of the stuff that made his name.

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        1. Someone wondered why you hadn’t commented on my recent Springsteen post. I see, though, that you appear to have stopped following the blog. Too bad. Hard to find good commenters.

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