Zappa Movie Review: A Compelling Look at One of History's Most Intruguing Musicians

Alex Winter delivers a fine documentary about a musical enigma with Zappa.
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From director Alex Winter of Bill and Ted fame comes Zappa, a deep dive into the life and career of Frank Zappa -- an artist as talented as he was controversial. Made in conjunction with the Zappa Family Trust (Zappa’s son Ahmet served as producer) and narrated by Zappa himself through archival interviews, Winter had access to countless hours of audio and video and conducted numerous interviews with former bandmembers, Zappa collaborators, and Zappa’s widow Gail. While Winter is clearly a fan and the film is very much a labor of love for him, he does his best to present an unbiased, warts and all look at this legendary artist.

The movie begins near the end of Zappa’s life in 1991 with him taking the stage in Prague. Czechoslovakia had recently been liberated and Zappa’s music helped inspire the country’s Velvet Revolution. When he got the invite to perform, he couldn’t turn it down, even though he hadn’t played in front of an audience since his 1988 tour. Unbeknownst to the public at the time, it would be his last recorded guitar performances. Overcome by his reception, Zappa asked the crowd to keep their country unique, something he was very adept at himself.

From there we see footage of Zappa going through a warehouse of master tapes of everything from his albums, to his jams with John Lennon, Eric Clapton, and Captain Beefheart. It is the sort of thing that would have Zappa aficionados salivating and one wonders what else lies in his archives. The story then goes back to the beginning, where we see 8mm home movies Zappa shot on his father’s camera. We learn Zappa’s father made poison gas used during World War II and that Zappa suffered health problems, including asthma, prompting a family move from Baltimore to California. Zappa’s father’s occupation led to his own experimentation with explosives, his last at age 15 when he tried to set his high school on fire.

Zappa’s family was never musical or into music, but like many youths of his era, Zappa was captivated by the R&B records of the day. He found a likeminded friend and future collaborator in Don Van Vliet, the future Captain Beefheart. Zappa formed his first group at age 16, a racially integrated band that did not go down well in the mid-1950s, and also worked on some orchestral pieces. Oddly, he didn’t start writing rock and roll music until he was in his 20s. In 1965, he formed the Mothers of Invention.

Winter interviews several Mothers members, including Bunk Gardner, and Ian and Ruth Underwood. While all three praise Zappa’s musicality and Ruth Underwood is reduced to tears when talking about his loss and what he meant to her, all three hold nothing back when describing how difficult he could be to work with. Gardner remembers Zappa never embracing anybody and endless hours of rehearsal, Ian Underwood said the shows were like compositions and were all Zappa’s ideas, and Ruth Underwood confirms the notion that Zappa could be difficult. Still, she loved the freedom his music presented as opposed to the rigid structure of her Julliard training. Later Zappa collaborator (and fellow guitar god) Stave Vai states that Zappa’s musicians were tools he used to execute his ideas.

It was during this period that Zappa met his future wife Gail, who was working as a secretary at the Whisky with Zappa’s roommate Pamela Zarubica. The pair hit it off right away and soon were married. While Zappa was head over heels with Gail, it did not stop him from pursuing groupies on the road. In an early interview, he states that he likes to get laid and that if he were to come home with the clap, the two of them would just take some penicillin. Different times to be sure. The couple stuck with each other though and had four children together. Not surprisingly as this film was made in conjunction with the Zappa Family Trust, nothing is made of the strained relationship Gail Zappa had with her daughter Moon and son Dweezil in her lifetime. Still, she was an important figure in Zappa’s life and was interviewed extensively for the documentary.

After abruptly disbanding the original Mothers in 1969 due mostly to financial constraints, Zappa went on to play with a revolving door of musicians, including Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan (both of Turtles fame), Napoleon Murphy Brock, Terry Bozzio, George Duke, Mike Keneally (who is also interviewed for the film), and Vai. While the original Mothers get a fair amount of screen time, these later lineups, some of them equally important in Zappa lore, get considerably less. This is unfortunate as there is a lot of live footage that could have been used and Winter seemingly had access to the Zappa multimedia motherlode. Still, the footage that is included is pretty great.

Much is made of Zappa’s Saturday Night Live appearance, which Zappa himself hated and found unfunny, partially because he thought they were making fun of him for not using drugs. Zappa leaving Warner Brothers gets a lot of play too, as he was one of the first artists to go independent when he formed Barking Pumpkin Records. It was during the Barking Pumpkin years that Zappa had an unlikely hit single with “Valley Girl,” a song that featured his daughter Moon and which was born of her desire to spend more time with her dad.

Zappa’s battles over censorship, and his testimony before Congress when the PMRC was going after controversial albums (ironically not Zappa’s) gets a lot of attention as well. Zappa was defending other artists who were not defending themselves in these hearings. The film does make it sound like only Zappa testified though when John Denver and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider also took notable (and career jeopardizing) turns in front of Congress.

Zappa, who died from prostate cancer in 1993, retired from the stage following his 1988 tour. His last concert appearance was in 1992, when he conducted the Ensemble Modern in a performance of his work. The fans gave Zappa a 20-minute standing ovation at the outset of the performance. When asked about it, he said, “there’s no accounting for taste.”

While Zappa could be tough, both in interviews and with his bandmates, he also cared about them and believed in them. While his arrangements were difficult, Zappa would have never given them to his musicians if he didn’t feel they were capable of delivering them to his exacting standards. He was a man of immense talent, who chose to make music his way, even though fellow legend (and one-time Zappa protégé) Alice Cooper believes Zappa could have written hits if he wanted to. Winter clearly loves his subject, but he allows enough counterpoint in his narrative to make Zappa a compelling documentary about a compelling musician.

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