Film Review: Zappa is a frank & creative look at Frank Zappa’s weirdly provocative genius

Zappa is a documentary that feels like one giant motherfucker of a film. At 129 minutes, director Alex Winter (the former lead actor of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) covers lots of ground about this enigmatic genius. They broke the mould when they made Frank Zappa. So, while the proceedings are detailed and capture his complexities, an even longer mini-series could have been made and still barely scratch the surface.

Winter has been given unfettered access to the Zappa vault and he doesn’t waste this opportunity. The documentary draws together so many clips: home movies of Zappa with his siblings as kids, Zappa as an adult artist with his own wife and children, as well as: concert footage, newsreels and his films. So many disparate threads are drawn together and wrapped up in a tidy bow. They prove that Zappa really was one complicated genius and artist.

A difficult prospect is how one should describe Zappa’s music. It’s a giant oeuvre that covers everything from psychedelia to jazz, rock and the blues, avant-garde to classical, and most everything in-between. It’s biggest defining feature is that it was original and pure Zappa, weirdness and all. Fans of his will enjoy the many cuts from his prolific back-catalogue.

One major musical highlight is his solo hit “Valley Girl,” which was written and recorded with his daughter Moon Unit. The latter was the catalyst for the project after she slipped a note under his home studio door to introduce herself. She felt like a stranger to her father and saw this as a way they could spend some quality time together.

Zappa’s other children appear here in archive home movies even though his son Ahmet is one of the film’s producers. Zappa’s late wife Gail is interviewed extensively alongside her husband’s collaborators. This includes: former GTO and groupie Pamela Des Barres, Steve Vai, Ian Underwood, Mike Keneally and Alice Cooper – who was signed to Zappa’s label. Zappa himself appears in archived interviews because he passed away from prostate cancer in 1993.

The film is a largely chronological one about Zappa’s life and career. There is a scene where John Lennon and Yoko Ono appear on-stage singing along to The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” There has to be a joke in that about a Beatle covering a Turtle but two of Zappa’s original Mothers of Invention – Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan – were in the sixties pop group. Zappa’s unfunny Saturday Night Life sketch about not taking drugs features. There are also some scenes describing Zappa as the central force of artistic life in Laurel Canyon even though The Zappas would move because of their proximity to the Charles Manson commune.

Frank Zappa was an often-misunderstood character. A hard taskmaster, he composed such detailed music, it was often difficult for the musicians to play. A staunch perfectionist, he strove to get good recordings of all his songs and wasn’t always happy with the final outputs. He had a beautiful mind that was always chock full of ideas: he had to get them down and never cared about courting fame or fortune.

Zappa is a labour of love about the late great activist, thinker, innovator and philosopher. The film is never dull and will appeal to both new and old fans because it captures his experimental spirit, deadpan humour and true essence. Zappa is an epic and frank look at the many dimensions of its genius subject, a beloved provocateur who knew how to stir the pot but not necessarily how to smoke it.

 

REVIEW SCORE: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE).

Zappa opens in Australian cinemas on 18 February 2021.

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