Although he departed this Earth some 27 years ago, Frank Zappa continues to both fascinate and befuddle. He fascinates because of the sheer brilliance of his guitar playing, his compositional skills, his astute and often biting satire and parody, and his invaluable ability to put together some of the most stellar band lineups of the rock era.
He befuddles, because, let’s face it, some of his lyrical output is little more than puerile scatology, often misogynistic and, frankly, and worst of all, devoid of imagination. His music, however? More often than not, it’s challenging and sublime.
From the rearview mirror, it’s obvious Zappa the artist would have been well-served by a creative partner or professional editor who might’ve been able to dissuade the main Mother of Invention from some of his more crass career lowlights. It’s to the detriment of his legacy that no such influence materialized.
On the other hand, Zappa’s headstrong independence was also one of his greatest artistic accomplishments. His relative success as an independent artist blazed trails for many, yet, by the time he formed his own record company in the late 1970s, he had already established himself on such labels as Verve and Warner Bros/Reprise, United Artists, and had helmed his Straight and Bizarre imprints.
Unsurprisingly, no substantial subjective criticism of Zappa appears in the latest documentary covering his personal life and career. Set to come out Nov. 27 and simply titled “Zappa,” this Magnolia release is helmed by “Bill & Ted” actor and documentary filmmaker Alex Winter.
As these types of passion projects go, Winter’s documentary delivers and is a must-see for true Zappa fans if, for nothing else, the heretofore unseen home footage of Zappa with his family, working with the all-female GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), as well as intimate scenes of Zappa with the group that put him on the map in the mid-1960s: the Mothers of Invention.
The film also serves as a decent, although far from perfect, intro for the uninitiated Zappa fanatic. Indeed, if you’re not already onboard the Zappa train, this documentary won’t provide you a first-class boarding ticket.
Included in the roster of talking heads gathered to deliver respective encomiums are Steve Vai, Ruth Underwood, and Alice Cooper. For the casual music fan who may not have been aware, Cooper’s recording career received a tremendous boost signing on to Zappa’s Straight label.
That said, late 1970s band members Adrian Belew, Terry Bozzio, and a host of other extremely talented musicians are some of the noteworthy collaborators missing in action. As a catalog of Zappa’s influences, “Zappa” does a fair job, but is not nearly as extensive as the 2010 documentary “The Freak Out List.”
What Winter’s does well, however, is postulate why Zappa seemed so intent on violating middle-class decorum throughout much of his recording career; namely, a bust, brief incarceration, and seizure of allegedly pornographic audio recordings by the San Bernardino vice squad and an adolescent fascination with genuinely blowing stuff up.
The word “genius” gets tossed around quite a bit, as is the custom in most celluloid tributes to fallen rock stars. Although tantalizing song fragments abound, there’s little critical context presented to convince the uninitiated Zappa freak of the frequent assertions of Zappa’s musical genius.
Early Mothers albums receive relatively short shrift as well. Focus on the third Mothers of Invention album, “We’re Only in It for the Money,” squanders much of its discussion on the sleeve design and whether its lampoon of the Beatles’s “Sgt. Pepper” cover might spark legal recourse. Left out are the many reasons no self-respecting music collection should be without a copy of perhaps the most brilliant skewering of the counterculture ever committed to vinyl.
That Zappa could so effectively stand outside the Summer of Love to lambaste it so hilariously and effectively should’ve come as no surprise as he and his band had devastatingly tackled the media, the White House, and America at large on their two preceding albums, “Freak Out” and “Absolutely Free.”
Not that you would glean such an impression from Winter’s film, but the first three Mothers albums constitute a trifecta of 1960s American parody never before or since equaled in popular music.
Classic Instrumental Albums – And Ex-Turtles
As the 1960s waned, Zappa, with and without the Mothers, moved more into an instrumental territory, releasing albums with complex instrumentation and kooky titles, including “Lumpy Gravy,” “Burnt Weeny Sandwich,” and what has rightly been deemed a classic, 1969’s “Hot Rats.”
The dawn of the 1970s, however, witnessed a new version of the Mothers, featuring former Turtles Flo and Eddie (Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan) on vocals. Not much consideration is granted this era in Winter’s film, but it should be noted this incarnation of the band displayed much of the freedoms somewhat curtailed in Zappa’s recorded output of the previous decade.
While some of the material has aged well, much of it today smacks of pushing the envelope of decency too far in the wake of Lenny Bruce (who, incidentally, was once signed to Zappa’s Straight label) and other comics who refused to work “clean.”
All the while, Zappa developed his guitar and compositional mastery and even managed a return to cultural parody in his late 1970s output. By the 1980s, he had even scored a massive hit, “Valley Girl,” with his daughter Moon Unit, which is given ample consideration in the documentary. It would have been beneficial, however, for the documentary to use clips that show exactly why so many hardcore music fanatics remain infatuated with Zappa’s music.
Zappa vs. the PMRC
Valuable screen time is given to Zappa’s battle against the Parents Music Resource Center and the organization’s attempts to impose a rating system on the music industry. Ultimately, Zappa lost. But, instead of the brief mention this episode truly deserves, the documentary presents Zappa as a hero for the First Amendment and all things celebrating freedom. Then, as now, this father of two daughters wonders how alerting parents to the increasingly offensive lyrical content of rock and rap music in the early 1990s crosses over into “censorship.”
Where “Zappa” shines is in the scenes bookending the film. The film’s opening sequence captures his sentiments before his final live performances in Prague to celebrate the Czech Republic’s newly established freedom from Soviet rule. His remarks to an adoring crowd serve to welcome their country’s re-entry into the free world and are worthy of inclusion in any textbook covering the end of the Cold War. Unfortunately, viewers don’t see or hear any of the music performed from those evenings.
At more than two hours, “Zappa” is a lengthy introduction to his life and musical career. If it inspires viewers unaware of his music to delve into his extensive catalog (which has more than doubled since he passed away in 1993), it serves a valuable purpose that may well be noble. For the rest of us, “Zappa” is time well spent with one of the most idiosyncratic and talented musical artists of the 20th century.