When it comes to the music of Frank Zappa, you're either in or out, there's isn't much middle ground. While the new documentary Zappa is an excellent look at the prolific artist, sure to win the approval of long time enthusiasts, it may not move the needle for the latter.
The film does however, go a long way to painting a more complete picture of a wildly talented, wildly productive artist whose oeuvre was a mixed bag of rock, classical, jazz, and avant-garde styles of composition -- a body of work far deeper than 'Don't Eat the Yellow Snow'.
Produced by actor and notable producer, Alex Winter, Zappa is an intimate, expansive look at a life that went well beyond rock music, a unique gumbo of theater, performance art, design, animation, and filmmaking. Winter was given full blessing by the family and access to the musician's personal vault, resulting in a spectacular unearthing of rarely seen or heard music and film.
As the documentary points out, Zappa was the son of a chemist who worked at a mustard gas factory. One of young Frank's first passions was chemistry, creating his own batch of dynamite at the age of six. But in his teens, he became obsessed with film and editing as well as with 20th-century composer Edgard Varèse, which influenced Zappa’s experimental style. He began writing classical music in high school. Boyhood friend, Don Van Vliet (the future Captain Beefheart), turned him on to gut-bucket blues. From there he helped put together an inter-racial band, The Blackouts, and ran a recording studio, only to get set up by the local vice squad on a bogus charge of pornography and was quickly put out of business. The seeds of authoritarian mistrust were planted...
While it's a passionate look at his life, Zappa hones in on the complexity of the person. As son Ahmet simply stated during the Bret Saunders Podcast, "My dad was a complicated person." Indeed. He was a long hair who despised the hippie culture, a loving father who enjoyed the company of groupies ("I'm a human being, I like to get laid"), a musician who broke all the rules, yet was a tyrant as a band leader. He was famously anti-drug, yet smoked like a chimney.
But Frank Zappa was also one of the first musicians to go independent, starting his own label. In the late 70's, near the end of his Warner Brothers contract, he floated the idea that his remaining four albums be released as a collection, pretty much coming up with the idea of the boxset before it became an industry standard. (BTW, Warner Bros. baulked at the plan).
In 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center came calling. The PMRC was formed with the stated goal of increasing parental control over the access of children to music deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes via labeling albums with Parental Advisory stickers. Zappa saw it for what it was--censorship. As a vigorous defender of the freest possible expression of ideas and speech, it was Frank who testified before the PMRC and Congress (no one in the record industry showed up) despite the fact it wasn't his music being attacked. Apparently nobody on the committee had ever listened to 'Bobby Brown Goes Down'...
Interestingly, Zappa would turn out to be an unlikely influence on Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, a move from Communism to the free election of a president for the first time since 1948. When he visited the country, he was greeted with near fan hysteria. As stated in the movie:
"In Czechoslovakia, when young kids played rock music, the police would tell them ‘Turn off that Frank Zappa music’, and suddenly, here’s Frank Zappa. He was a symbol of this freedom".
Afterwards, Zappa was appointed Czechoslovakia’s Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture, and Tourism. The honor didn't last long; U.S. Secretary of State James Baker — whose wife Susan was aligned with the PMRC that Zappa famously clashed with--pressured the Czech's to pull back the offer.
As the saying goes, 'behind every great man there's a great woman' and it's nice to see wife, Gail Zappa, get plenty of screen time. Not only was she Frank's wife, she was also his muse, mother to his children, and creative co-conspirator. “I married a composer. I don’t know what he is to anybody else, but to me he was a composer. And you have to be out of your mind to begin with to take it on,” she says in the film. Her husband's legacy wouldn't be what it is today without her.
Throughout his life, Zappa’s wish was to be taken seriously as a composer. The film spends generous time on the subject, so if you were looking for deeper insights on 'Dinah-Moe Humm', you'll be disappointed. Later in life, he wrote for Kronos Quartet, and quite notably, Ensemble Modern. A lot of these ventures came out of his own pocket claiming, "I write music that I have to pay musicians a pretty penny to record, and that’s my legacy. It’s not commercial, and I don’t want to be commercial".
It's an interesting comment considering what Alice Cooper, who Zappa signed to his first record deal, says, “I really think Frank was afraid to have a hit record. Because I think Frank could have written hit records all day.”
If there is a flaw in Zappa--and a sizable one in my opinion—it’s the short shrift given to his 70's output when he was producing some of his best-known rock albums, Apostrophe, Over-Night Sensation, One Size Fits All, etc. This period flies by in about a minute.
That said, Zappa is well worth your time. He was a rock star, classical composer, and importantly, a cultural warrior... Early on he warned of the corruptive nature of money, media manipulation, and the fact that the government doesn't always have our best interests at heart.
And on a lighter, no less serious note, "People will clap at the crappiest things".
Zappa is streaming on Amazon Prime.
(Photo JEAN BAPTISTE LACROIX/AFP via Getty Images)
Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, LA Times, and Allmusic, plus decades spent listening to FZ's music...helped me in putting my own crude stamp on this article.