As Alex Winter’s acclaimed documentary Zappa arrives in cinemas (read our review here) to both introduce and re-establish Frank Zappa as one of the music industry’s late, great geniuses, the musician’s son – and Zappa producer – Ahmet Zappa is talking about the labour of love that is the film. Peter Gray spoke with Ahmet about how it was to watch the film for the very first time, why Alex Winter was the right director for the job, and how Frank’s outspoken ways would be viewed today.
Watching this film was an experience, just learning so much about Frank and his music. I’ll admit I had never really listened to his music, so I went into this movie blind. You’re managing the archives – from what I understand – how overwhelming was it to uncover so much material?
That’s a complicated answer. I always knew the material was there. I grew up in the middle of it, and i’m on lots of it, but I never had anything to do with the family business. If my mother needed help, of course I would give it to her, but ultimately she thought I would do the right thing and make sure that I would take care of everybody, and I take that very seriously from a business perspective. The unknowns for me were that my mother was my father’s partner (in business) and I think I took a lot of things for granted. It was a new reality when my mother and father died.
But we had this endless amount of content, and when I hear it it immediately brings me back to that moment in time, especially when it’s audio of us as a family. Going through the material for the movie was so emotional. It’s bittersweet. I learned so much about Frank and my mother, and I got to hear so much great music, and Alex (Winter, the director) had such a specific point of view and my job there was really to champion him, because it was about supporting the story he wanted to tell. I’m in this crazy appreciation mode because the fanbase really stepped up to preserve a lot of the dying media…to get to this moment in time, boy is it a mixed bag of emotions!
I was going to ask you about Alex Winter, because I imagine you’ve been approached countless times over the years by people wanting to tell Frank’s story. What was it specifically about Alex’s approach?
My mother was the one often approached, and pretty early on she would bring me, almost exclusively, into those conversations. I have my own production company, I’ve worked for Disney, I’ve made a lot of productions…and I think when she was being approached by people she just wanted to have another perspective. I’ve known Alex for many years, and he rang me up (one time) and asked why there hasn’t been an official documentary? I really like Alex so he had a leg up in that regard, but I told him he ultimately had to win over my mother. I was a fly on the wall for a bunch of other pitches (about Frank) that went wrong, but it was really Alex’s other work and his integrity…and he was given complete access to the vault! And I had never heard my mother say that before. It really became this beautiful friendship (between my mother and Alex) and she had every intention of beating cancer, because I know she would be so proud (of the film).
One of the great things about the film is that as much as we see him in his rock star element, there’s the classical composer, the conductor, the filmmaker…it showed more of his versatility. How did you react when you first saw the film in its entirety?
I cried. The part that just rocked me was seeing my father limp after he played the Rainbow Theatre in the UK, where he was attacked by a crazed fan. He was pushed into the orchestra pit and he could’ve died. He broke his neck, he broke his leg, and it forever changed my father’s singing voice…THAT! That made me feel horrible. To see him limp and know he was in pain, it just made me think how no one wants to see their family suffer.
Given his lyrics, his social commentary on the music industry, and on education and politics, how do you think Frank would’ve been reacted to had he been in today’s industry?
What’s fascinating is…and I’m not trying to plug my socials (laughs), but what we do with the official Zappa account, whenever we post, we come across a lot of quotes that are snapshots that are insights into Frank’s mind and his political view. He was such a futurist. I get goosebumps. His point of view, in his day, really must’ve freaked people out because you fast forward to today and a lot of people share the same values that my father had back then. He never backed down from a fight, and he used his wits not his fists to outsmart and make his point. I think he’s one of the most unique minds to have ever walked the planet. He was so talented.
He really embraced independence, almost paving the way for the indie artist in some ways…
Oh totally! There’s so many different ways to record music and collaborate…and my father never had the ease of today’s technology. His voice with today’s social media platform? He could be broadcasting on YouTube, in fact he probably could’ve invented YouTube!
There’s still releases of Frank’s music to this day. Are there any further plans for more material to be released that hasn’t been heard?
Yes…but it’s a complicated answer. You could have a tape sitting on the shelf with a title on the spine, and when you preserve it and digitise it to turn into a future release it might not be what you think it is on that tape. There’s so much music, there really is. His orchestral pieces, there’s music we still want to debut…we are constantly discovering new things. Any Frank concert was unique in that he never really played the same song the same way, so there’s a lot to enjoy from night to night. There’s a lot to explore in just his banter and the improvisation with the band members. We have lots and lots of music that we want to put out, and we have plans to do so. A lot of the fun here is the historical releases where, because we are completists, we are insane with the way we put the packages together. I’m still a big believer in the physical product, and we put so much love and time and energy into every product. I always feel closer to Frank when I hear his voice.
Zappa is screening in Australian theatres now.