Not jazz, not rock ’n’ roll, not the blues and not pop, 28 years after his death, Frank Zappa remains a singular and surreally subversive artist, impossible to categorise. “Well, what the hell is it?” asks his percussionist Ruth Underwood halfway through director (and yes, Bill S Preston Esq from the mighty Bill & Ted franchise) Alex Winter’s two hour tribute to the bandleader, composer and reluctant rockstar. “It’s Zappa!” she concludes with a wide grin.
Frank Zappa has always been one of those artists that you either get or you don’t. Winter falls into the first group, so much so that he’s spent much of the last decade making this, the first full-length documentary to delve into the multi-layered life of the Baltimore-born, Italian-American musical polyglot.
The highest funded documentary in crowdfunding history, Zappa digs through Frank’s own vaults of video footage, featuring home horror movies he made as a teenager when his family relocated to California, as well as Winter’s own in-depth interviews with decades of collaborators, including some who have sadly died since filming took place, namely wife Gail Zappa and animator Bruce Bickford, who we see still lovingly creating claymation models of Frank Zappa’s head well into his seventies.
Zappa paints its star as a consistently inconsistent but always brilliant man. His early years are a fabulously wild ride. He attempts to set fire to his his high school before making friends with Don Van Vliet aka Captain Beefheart and then somehow winds up scoring movies and getting his own greeting cards line before being arrested by the vice squad for making a dirty movie that isn’t actually dirty at all. It’s the kind of career progression that’s more analogous to a 30-something millennial with an Etsy account than one of the 20th century’s great musical minds. Years later, we see him morphing into a staunch defender of human expression, appearing on mainstream media as well as in the courts as an anti-censorship campaigner.
Frank Zappa’s first album though comes in 1966, with The Mothers of Invention’s groovy, America-baiting ‘Freak Out!’ – the first of 62 albums to be released during his lifetime – and which, despite its psychedelic nature, was made by a man who always swerved recreational drugs. A complex character, during Zappa’s runtime Frank is conversely called cruel, a workaholic, passionate, talented and solipsistic, but above all it’s his passion for experimentation that stands out. Frank had no interest in making something popular, but rather something that would push the boundaries of what modern music was expected to be. Speaking during a 2006 interview, Alice Cooper hits the nail on the head. “I really think Frank was afraid to have a hit record,” he muses. “Because I think Frank could have written hit records all day and he purposely sabotaged a lot of his records.”
“It won’t be perfection – it’ll just be music,” laughs Frank during backstage footage from a 1991 gig in the Czech Republic. Zappa proves that ‘just music’ is more than enough.
- Director: Alex Winter
- Starring: Frank Zappa, Arsenio Hall, David Bowie
- Release date: February 16 (Altitude Films)