Full disclosure right up front, I’m a Frank Zappa fanatic. While I had four of Zappa’s albums in high school, it wasn’t until around 2003 that, due to a burgeoning interest in the music of Captain Beefheart, I dove into his catalogue in earnest. And, man, did I dive HARD. By hitting every new and used music store within a forty mile radius, I managed to collect every Frank Zappa album that had been released up until that time. And while it is to be expected that a fully smitten person is going to try and digest every single piece of work from an artist with whom they fall in love, the extraordinary thing about Zappa is that, in his lifetime, he released some 62 albums and, as of this writing, another 50-plus have been released by the Zappa Family Trust, the family business now run by his youngest son, Ahmet.
So that’s a lot of music and I own it all. And that’s what Frank Zappa wanted. As Zappa himself states a couple of times in Alex Winter’s long-gestating and beautiful documentary, Zappa, all he was interested in was composing his own music, recording it, and selling it to anyone who shared his passion for listening to it. It’s truly a noble goal, but when you realize that Frank Zappa’s first album came out in 1966 and the last one released during his lifetime arrived in 1993, something in the math doesn’t seem right and one can only conclude that Zappa lived a life completely out of balance. Nobody who is consistently releasing 2.3 albums every year for 27 straight years has anything resembling a normal existence.
It’s probably most surprising that Zappa almost goes out of its way to show how unbalanced Frank’s life was. Forever cutting away to images and footage of Frank hunched over some kind of table as he is painstakingly writing his compositions as if he were a Benedictine monk copying a Bible by hand, the film presents Zappa as a sentient music machine who had little feeling for anything beyond his work and interests. While he certainly loved his family, it almost feels like Zappa’s style of love was unique and could only be expressed in his own way. But there aren’t many people in Zappa’s universe who sat down for interviews that didn’t articulate the same line on Frank: he was just a laser-focused perfectionist to whom it was difficult to feel a kinship.
The film never really goes into what made Frank an emotionally distant person but there are hints sprinkled about here and there. Growing up in a family in which the parents are joyless stiffs (as Zappa’s folks mostly were) can’t help but have an effect on a person and while Zappa’s zany, anti-authoritarian persona was aimed directly at his parents’ generation, he kept his own generation at arm’s length, too. Tall, gangly, hairy, and brooding to the point where he was concocting ways to set fire to Antelope Valley High, save and except fellow rhythm and blues fanatic Don Vliet (who would later take musical form as Captain Beefheart), Zappa probably wasn’t much of a hit with his peers, male or female. Frank Zappa, quite simply, never counted on being loved and never really knew what to do with it when he was which, naturally, leaves one’s wife and children and workmates at something of a disadvantage.
But while it doesn’t shy away from the ugly truths about him, Zappa isn’t on a mission to bury him, either. Frank Zappa lived an incredible life on his terms and Winter wants to tell that story. Here is a uniquely American tale of an iconoclast who went from chronically sick child to self-taught musical genius to outrageous rock artist to Washington D.C. crank to, finally, one of the ultimate symbols of freedom and deified hero to the people of newly liberated countries of the then-crumbling Soviet bloc. That’s a lot to pack into a film meant for general audiences so Winter had the unenviable task of keeping the narrative moving forward without getting distracted on every single detail of Zappa’s career, of which there are a lot.
This approach created some very interesting reactions in me as a viewer versus me as a Zappa super fan. For me, he had no band better than the Roxy/One Size Fits All incarnation of the Mothers of Invention but the film glides over that period in what ends up being a brief moment in a quicksilver collage of his rotating bands from 1973-1979. For Winter, the lion’s share of the time is spent on the original lineup of the Mothers, highlighting as much their bizarre, performance art stage antics as he does their music. Ultimately, regardless of my personal preference of any specific era of Zappa’s impressively varied body of work, the foundation of his career and public persona was created, gestated, and borne out of the 1966-1969 lineup and it’s just as crucial to the beginning of the narrative as much as his triumphant partnership with the Ensemble Modern in the twilight of his life is to the end.
This also spills over into other aspects of the film. Frank Zappa was one of the finest, most mind-bending guitarists in all of rock history but you’d really never know it from the film. Aside from one shot of Zappa absolutely shredding which reveals, in full color, the man’s scorching dexterity on the fretboard, there are no moments of him noodling, soloing, or a montage of stage moments overlaid with audio snatches from any one of the multiple albums he released that are filled with nothing but guitar solos. But, again, this isn’t the story Winter wants to tell and the film is the better for it. As Gail Zappa insists early on in the film “I married a composer.” And regardless of what each individual Zappa fan loves about him, most all of them agree that the term “composer” is the one thing that should be elevated above all else. And this is why Winter makes it to where you’re more likely to see Zappa with a conductor’s baton in his hand than a guitar. Even when Zappa’s “stunt guitarist”, Steve Vai, shows up to talk about Frank, there’s never any real discussion about guitar technique or soloing off of Frank; it’s all about musical complexity and the Herculean effort of manually transcribing “The Black Page”, a beyond-difficult Zappa composition written for drums and percussion.
Much is made, too, of Zappa’s battles with the Parents Music Resource Center (otherwise known as the PMRC), a group of Washington wives who wanted to regulate what they considered “porn rock.” This occupied a great deal of Zappa’s time in the late eighties and helped cement his legacy as a champion for freedom at a time when it was uncertain if our country was ever going to climb out of the hole of the Reagan Era. This chapter also helps lend understanding to the weird international wrinkle that occurred when Zappa was disallowed by Bush 41’s State Department to serve as cultural attaché to the newly liberated Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) which had been personally requested by then-President Václav Havel.
The film does do some slight dramatizing and, at times, completely omits somewhat crucial information when it really doesn’t need to. Coming away from the film, you’d have thought Zappa served all six months of the jail sentence he got as a result of that raid on his studio when, in fact, he was only in the clink for ten days. There’s no reason to mislead the viewer by omission when the very real pain and injustice of ten days in jail on a bullshit charge wouldn’t feel minimized if it were followed up with the very real story of how Zappa was held in jail just long enough for his entire life’s work up to that point, including the studio, to be seized by the authorities and sold off. Missing also is the fact that Zappa was living in that studio because he moved in after divorcing his first wife, Kay Sherman, who is never mentioned in the film at all.
But, again, Zappa’s life was so full of left turns, details, and grand adventures with both Gail and his band that you’d need three full length features to tell it all. But Winter has a limited canvas on which to work and delivers the most comprehensive and complete story of an incredibly difficult and complex figure one could possibly hope for. And it’s not a story bereft of heart regardless of Zappa’s tough cynicism. The respect and understanding that is in the clear-voiced appreciation of Zappa though Steve Vai and Alice Cooper (who got his start on Zappa’s imprint label) feels absolutely right but there may not be a more touching figure than that of Ruth Underwood who strikes the right balance between hard-nosed realist and fawning admiration. Detecting (and connecting to) the deep soul of Frank through the complexity and beauty of his music, Underwood supplies the film with two of its most moving passages, one in which, at 74 years-old, she absolutely nails “The Black Page” on a baby grand piano, and second where she (and, curiously, only she) breaks down in tears when discussing the end of Zappa’s life.
When the end does come, the film turns impressionistic and, instead of lining up all of the interviewees to give bittersweet postmortems about Frank and his work and what it meant, Winter relates everything to the work to be done versus the time in which one has to do it. As the clock ticks out, and despite his one last heart-bursting success as an incredibly sick Zappa conducts the Ensemble Modern in a perfect performance of “G-Spot Tornado,” a song so complicated it was composed for the Synclavier, a computerized keyboard sampler with which Zappa utilized in his later years, out of fear humans couldn’t play it, we’re left with ideas of the voluminous projects that remained unfinished.
Like filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Frank Zappa was a notoriously prickly and paradoxical figure whose dictatorial approach to his art made him a complicated individual who was destined to work himself into an early grave. For both, their art and their lives generally crossed lines as there was hardly any time and space to separate the two. In the case of Frank Zappa, his oft quoted line from Joe’s Garage “Music is the best,” was probably the simplest thesis of his entire life energy as everything seemed to flow towards it and away from it. And Alex Winter’s Zappa does as good a job as any to make audiences understand that, in the end, maybe it’s something as simple as that that fuels a contradictory, complex artist to endlessly create. And maybe it’s not so easy on everyone in their immediate orbit but we’d be foolish as a society to not celebrate their lives and their work, created just as much for us as for themselves.