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.