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This documentary about the hugely prolific Frank Zappa, directed by Alex “Bill Preston Esq” Winter, takes an unusually serious-minded approach to the celebrated wild man of 1960s and 70s American rock: ranging from his unusual childhood, to his ferocious work ethic, to his political-sphere interventions, this is a fruitful attempt to get under the skin of a figure who is renowned for lurking eccentrically at the music industry’s periphery. One thing it doesn’t focus much on is the music itself; perhaps the ongoing devotion of Zappa’s hardcore fans means there’s no compelling reason to introduce the work to a new generation.
In Winter’s eyes, Zappa’s oddness was set early: the son of a chemical engineer who worked for an army poison gas lab, his musical interests were sparked by an album of experimental percussion by modernist composer Edgar Varèse (the exact quote: “the most frightening, evil, vile thing a human being could listen to; I couldn’t understand why people didn’t love it”); an early encounter with the law, which saw him ejected from the small-town studio he set up as a young man for supposedly agreeing to help make a “stag film”, set him on the way to embracing the counterculture in Los Angeles and later New York.
The film is at pains to counter some of the more enduring Zappa myths: he was not some whacked-out hippy, avoided drugs, and worked with a focused dedication to realise his musical vision. The cost of this is spelled out: many of the musicians found him a distant presence, ready to ditch them once their purpose was served; his children had to pitch for his attention; and his wife Gail, who speaks here at length before her death in 2015, had to contend with Zappa’s well-known fondness for the groupie lifestyle and – to put it mildly – some unreconstructed views on women. Winter also devotes lengthy sequences to Zappa’s congressional testimony in opposition to labelling record lyrics, and his unlikely adoption as a cultural envoy by post-cold war Czechoslovakia.
There’s perhaps a little too much telling us what a genius Zappa was without really letting us hear for ourselves; this perhaps also explains the stress laid on his “classical” compositions, as if to reinforce his serious-musician credentials. But there’s no denying Zappa’s personal charisma and devotion to his cause, nor his articulacy in its service. Winter has created a fascinating watch.
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Source: The Guardian
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