Compiled from musician Frank Zappa’s extensive archive known as “The Vault” director Alex Winter has lovingly curated this documentary about an iconoclastic man who is recognisable the world over by just one word: Zappa.
… is as close as you’re ever likely to get to what made this man tick.
Running along a chronological faultline, Winter’s documentary introduces us to Zappa the child. Fascinated by chemistry (and especially by explosives), his parents brought worked in the defence industry where having gas masks at home weren’t a luxury but a practical necessity. Surprisingly though, music wasn’t a feature of their household and yet when young Frank discovered discordant composer Varese, it lit a fire inside him that would burn for a lifetime.
Later forming the band The Mothers of Invention in 1965, Zappa the perfectionist would begin to emerge. Expecting his band to able to play from memory, his idea of success was the recreation of a sound or melody so that it felt as though you were hearing it for the first time. Unconcerned about either sales or success, his early years with wife Gail would be life live without a safety net. Fortunately, though, the decade of the 60s would be on hand to his creativity the oxygen it needed. With figures like comedian Lenny Bruce and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band tearing the rule books, his seminal LP Freak Out would find an audience.
Yet despite Zappa’s increasing notoriety at this point, Winter’s documentary isn’t afraid to go dark in its roster of interviews. With some of his bandmates describing Frank as sometimes aloof and cold, his attitude throughout was that “some people who get it and some people won’t” and for the first two-thirds of Zappa could be said to be “for the fans”. Although to embrace Zappa’s taste for disorientation maybe this is an appropriate approach given the man under discussion. Pulled from the stage and attacked at London’s Rainbow theatre, Zappa was never quite the same afterwards and Winter’s movie changes its tone to match. Gone is the emphasis on home movies and its later Zappa becoming enraged by the music industry’s equation of volumes sale somehow being indicative of musical merit.
Bizarrely though, by enjoying a year-long smash with his daughter Moon for their cheeky little parody single Valley Girl, its profits would enable Zappa to return to his first love of orchestral composition. For sure other bête noirs historically raise their heads in the form of the Reagan administration and their campaign for lyrical censorship, but Zappa, the eloquent elder statesman was more than a match for them. Fighting solidly on principle, even if those he was defending never showed up to stand with him, Zappa emerges as a formidable force in any arena.
So, in commendably walking a line between telling a tale and conveying a feeling, it’s really hard to imagine how any director could have done a better job than Alex Winter. Given whose subject who previously opined that “a lot of what we do is to annoy people so as to make people think”, Zappa was never going to be the most opaque of subjects for a documentary to cover. Though courtesy of the most successfully funded documentary ever in crowdfunding history, Alex Winter’s Zappa is probably is as close as you’re ever likely to get to what made this man tick.
So, plug in and tune out the negative waves…