Director: Alex Winter
Alex Winter’s meticulously assembled documentary of the divisive and eclectic musician Frank Zappa strikes an artful balance between wacky portrait of counter-counter-culture provocateur, and stirring study of a ground-breaking and uncompromising artist.
Made with the support and cooperation of Zappa’s estate, it boasts a wealth of archive footage from an artist who exhaustively catalogued his work.
Winter elegantly sets out the formative years, as we see how young autodidact Zappa, utilising the family home movie camera, made his own horror movies, and cheekily spliced in footage from z-list monster flicks to his parents’ marriage video; this fusing of disparate elements going on to be a hallmark of his work.
A keen R&B fan with a taste for the challengingly avant-garde, Zappa purchased a record by the experimental composer Edgard Varèse after reading that it was unlistenable. His arrest on trumped-up pornography charges, heralded a career-long battle with the forces of censorship.
A contradictory figure, the married with children, drug-eschewing Zappa, settled in the hippie environs of Laurel Canyon. He was also a canny businessman at a time when commerce was something for The Man to handle.
A series of residency gigs in New York City saw his band honing their craft while establishing a reputation for confrontational and challenging performances to, nonetheless appreciative, audiences. The seventies were a hugely productive time for the artist, with Zappa even scoring a novelty hit in 1979 with ‘Dancing Fool’ in 1979, and another with the satirical ‘Valley Girl’ in 1982 - interviewee and friend Alice Cooper amusingly relates how Zappa went out of his way to avoid hits.
The latter part of the documentary, in which Winter elegantly shifts the mood from the rapid fire high jinks of the first half to an almost elegiac feel, chronicles his sardonic appearances speaking out on censorship on various talk shows, and the hero’s welcome he received in post-communist Czechoslovakia where his music was regarded as symbolic of freedom.
While making a persuasive case for Zappa as a serious artist, the picture never descends into mere hagiography. In an interview clip Zappa smirks as he blithely dismisses his infidelity to his wife, while past band members outline how he was quick to discard them when a project was finished.
‘Zappa’ is available to stream on Altitude Film now