Movie review: ‘Zappa’ takes a deep dive into the life and music of a rock legend
I’m privileged to be able to say that I saw Frank Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention, play three times - twice with the original lineup, at the Rhode Island Auditorium (1968) and at the Boston Globe Jazz Festival (1969), and once when Flo & Eddie were members at the Fenway Theater in Boston (1971).
But I’d already been a fan before that first show. Sometime near the end of 1966, I visited Krey’s Disc Shop in Braintree, Massachusetts, to buy what would be my third album (after The Stones’ “Out of Our Heads” and The Beatles’ “Rubber Soul.”). There on the display wall was the double LP “Freak Out!” by The Mothers of Invention, in all of its psychedelic glory. What the heck was this? I brought it to the cashier, who looked at it and at me and said, “You don’t want this.” But I did. I bought it, went home, and proceeded to hear what I would now call a mixture of doo-wop and avant-garde and pop music. I loved it, and still do, although I’ll confess that, in later years, aside from a few exceptions (“Hot Rats” being one of them), Zappa’s music got a little too out there for me, but I remain a fan of the man.
As is Alex Winter, writer and director of the documentary “Zappa.” Winter, best known as Bill in the Bill & Ted films, has been making documentaries for a decade. When he approached Zappa’s widow Gail (he died from prostate cancer in 1993) for permission on the project, his pitch was to tell the story of the man, his music, and his place in the world. The resulting film is an amazing accomplishment, in that Zappa, and everything around him was caught up in such a dizzying rush of creativity and changing times.
Having been given access to the Zappa family archives AKA “The Vault” - a treasure trove of recordings, interviews, articles ... everything Zappa - Winter made great use of it. The film opens with a 1991 concert in Prague, showing Zappa’s last recorded guitar performance. It cuts to a series of TV obituaries, then takes a trip right into that vault, with Zappa as the tour guide, one of many astounding pieces of footage.
There’s lots more of Zappa - at home in 1970, chatting about his childhood interest in, not music, but chemistry and explosives; another segment at home in 1973, when he was recovering from a wrong time-wrong place event in London that rendered him unable to play in concert for two years; yet another, in 1993, talking about that Prague show. These clips show him to be laid-back, passionate about his music, always erudite.
But he’s not alone in telling his story. Winter has assembled interviews from people who knew him and worked with him. Among the best and most revealing are those from his wife Gail (who died in 2015, after numerous chats with Winter) and former Mothers members saxophonist Bunk Gardner, multi-instrumentalist Ian Underwood, and pianist Ruth Underwood, all of them talking openly about Zappa’s perfectionism and his rudeness as well as their unflagging admiration for him. Even so, there’s a lingering feeling that nobody truly knew him.
Scattered throughout the film are bits of music from the albums, along with brief scenes of concert footage from many different phases of his career (the original Mothers disbanded in 1969 because there just wasn’t enough money in it).
Among the highlights are these revelations: Zappa’s parents were initially opposed to his involvement in music. He taught himself guitar. He was writing orchestral music long before any rock songs. He had great business sense. The Mothers didn’t catch on until they moved from L.A. to New York, and took up residency at the Garrick Theater.
There’s so much more, from Zappa’s Senate appearance to fight what he considered to be censorship by the Parents’ Music Resource Center to the story of how “Valley Girl” became his first and only hit. Yet it’s one of his casual statements, made early in his career, that stands out: “All I want to do is get a good performance and a good recording of everything that I ever wrote, so I can hear it. If anybody else wants to hear it, then that’s great, too.”
“Zappa” will be released in select theaters and On Demand on Nov. 27.
Ed Symkus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written and directed by Alex Winter
With Frank Zappa, Gail Zappa, Ruth Underwood, Bunk Gardner