'Zappa': Film Review

ZAPPA Kerry McNabb Frank Zappa
Yoram Kahana/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
Captures its subject's spirit without tipping into mere hero worship.
11/27/2020

Alex Winter's latest doc digs into private vaults for a portrait of the singular musician.

Even his most dedicated fans tend to accept that not all their friends will agree with them on Frank Zappa. Proudly uncategorizable, aloof and outspoken about the aspects of pop culture he thought were garbage, he attracted both devotees and haters from the very start. In the former camp we find documentarian Alex Winter, who takes a break from exploring the dark corners of cyberspace for Zappa, a well-rounded film that not only benefits from access to the musician's private vaults, but also helped rescue their contents: According to Winter, his team spent two years preserving a trove of deteriorating film and audiotape before even starting production.

The result will be both celebrated by fans and useful to those of us who remain on the fence — a spirited portrait that doesn't shy away from Zappa's ornery side but makes a good case for the legitimacy of his art, which always baffled those who expected to be able to slap a label on it.

Made with the family's cooperation — late wife Gail Zappa speaks throughout, and son Ahmet is a producer; oddly, none of the children are interviewed — the movie benefits enormously from access to a small library's worth of home movies, unheard recordings and the like. We learn at the start that young Frank was fascinated with the act of editing 8mm film as much as shooting it: He'd take footage from his parents' wedding, for instance, and splice in scenes from '50s sci-fi. That spirit informs Winter and editor Mike J. Nichols' approach. Especially but not only when covering the madcap days of his first famous band, the filmmakers use rapid-fire cutting to great effect. They evoke the artist's many-genres-at-once mashups, his rejection of barriers between "high" and "low" art, and the provocative impulse behind much of his public persona.

Zappa was not made for the small towns where he grew up, but at least he found a few kindred outcasts: While still in high school he met the man who would become Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart. Sadly, the movie doesn't have time to talk much about him, but the two encouraged each other's interest in the R&B records their teeny-bopper schoolmates ignored. The first band Zappa joined was racially mixed, but he wasn't exploring only Black sounds. In a vintage interview, he recalls buying a record by experimental French-born composer Edgard Varèse based on nothing other than a newspaper article suggesting it was something no American consumer would want to hear.

Winter concisely recaps Zappa's early attempts to support himself with creative and quasi-creative work, and finds one formative event here that cast a long shadow: While running a recording studio in Rancho Cucamonga, California, Zappa was arrested on a trumped-up pornography charge and wound up serving a bit of time in jail while police seized all his tapes. The capriciousness of authority figures and America's fondness for moral panic would be a thorn in his side for life.

Winter offers a brief introduction to Zappa's attention-getting band the Mothers of Invention, interviewing some of the group's original members — and showing how they solidified their identity only after fleeing the California hippie scene and embarking on a months-long residency at a small theater in New York City. References to a "theater of cruelty" at those shows suggest how willing the bandleader was to challenge his audiences' tastes. An ungenerous viewer might call his attitude snotty and superior. But for Juilliard percussion student Ruth Underwood, who came back night after night to these shows, it was a revelation.

Underwood wound up becoming a longtime member of the band, championing the idea that Zappa was less a rock celebrity than part of the evolution of art-music composition. She and guitar hero Steve Vai turn out to be the film's most valuable interviewees: Both admit that working for Zappa was often hard (Underwood even says he could be cruel), but both seem to feel there was no other way he could bring his technically demanding music into the world. "I was a tool for the composer," Vai says contentedly.

The movie makes this case quite well, even for viewers who'd choose dozens of desert-island records by other weird-music pioneers (from Beefheart to Moondog, Zorn and Sun Ra, Harry Partch ...) before they'd even consider a disc from Zappa's voluminous catalog. And questions of personal taste don't intrude at all on Winter's depiction of Zappa as a hero during that period when Tipper and Al Gore, Susan and James Baker, and a bunch of other Washington, D.C., pearl-clutchers started freaking out about naughty lyrics in pop music. Though he wasn't even one of their targets, Zappa became a dedicated and clear-speaking opponent of anything smacking of censorship.

Zappa's elder-statesman period, of course, came far too early. The film is unsentimental about his diagnosis with terminal prostate cancer, which killed him when he was just 52. But it does show how the illness intensified the workaholic's desire to get things done in the time he had left: Having found a German classical music group that was truly passionate about his ideas, Ensemble Modern, he was able to conduct and record The Yellow Shark, seen by many (including the composer) as the most successful realization of his orchestral ambitions. It was the last record he released before he died.

Production company: Trouper
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Director: Alex Winter
Producers: Alex Winter, Glen Zipper, Ahmet Zappa, John Frizzell
Executive producers: Robert Halmi, Jim Reeve, Seth Gordon
Director of photography: Anghel Decca
Editor: Mike J. Nichols
Composer: John Frizzell

128 minutes