Much like the iconoclast at the center of this doc, Zappa is singular, uncompromising, and riveting.
Whether you appreciate Frank Zappa’s work, few would deny the massive impact he had on contemporary art music. The musician, who died relatively young after a terminal battle with prostate cancer at the age of 53, was something of a curiosity: a chain-smoker who was vehemently anti-drugs; a self-taught multi-instrumentalist and musical virtuoso who, unlike many of his contemporaries, wasn’t initially drawn to the world of music because of a fascination with rock or blues. Instead, for Zappa, it all began in his teenage years when he first heard Edgard Varèse’s ominous-sounding compositions, an enduring and defining period that gradually led to Zappa’s very eccentric experimentalist style that placed him in the tradition of other avant-garde greats like Charles Ives, Harry Partch, and Sun Ra. In Zappa, it’s a sentiment best expressed through the words of Mothers of Invention percussionist Ruth Underwood: she dismisses such reductive categorizations as rock ‘n’ roll or jazz or pop, simply stating, “It’s Zappa.” And so, a fair question to ask of a documentary tackling such an enigmatic, bewildering man is what approach will provide the best expression, both formally and narratively?
The answer, here, seems partly inevitable thanks to the immense personal vault of archival footage that the industry iconoclast and outspoken socio-political activist gathered and preserved throughout his lifetime. Director Alex Winter was given unprecedented opportunity to access over a thousand hours of mostly unseen material, assembling Zappa over the course of six years. But what makes for a crucial distinction between Winter’s film and so many other portrait-docs is that Winter never seeks to solve or understand Zappa’s singular mercurial character, and instead seeks to convey and celebrate the artist’s mystical aura and puzzling persona. Given the musician’s legacy and the sheer amassment of footage, fascinating anecdotes and information and images abound, but much of Zappa’s power is found in Winter’s deployment of restraint and economy of focus, his construction of the myriad parts always precise. There are talking-head interviews with Zappa’s friends, collaborators, and, most notably, his widow Gail Zappa, but Winter always keeps these conversations succinct, mostly allowing the images and words of Zappa to narrate their own history. The director never evinces any inclination for album-to-album storytelling or excessive biographical reportage, but instead, through very rhythmic editing, he tends toward a free-flowing style of filmmaking that almost resembles the spontaneous tone and feel of Zappa’s own underground directorial work in the ‘60s. On a few occasions in the film, Zappa is shown explicating on his artistic approach: specifically, that for him the most essential factor in creating music was to always and only make music that he would want to listen to. But rather than an egoistic statement, it’s actually an ego-deferring one, reflecting a man’s passion for, dedication to, and faith in his work at the expense of the easier road to success that the mainstream affords. It’s a quality that also defines Alex Winter’s tremendous effort, a work that stays true to its subject’s unique spirit and delivers the goods for avid music fans.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | November 2020.