Actor Alex Winter of “Bill & Ted” fame, directs his second documentary feature film of 2020 with “Zappa”. The film about the oddball musician Frank Zappa is well…an odd and occasionally jarring documentary, but it really can’t be anything but those things, especially once you meet the man himself. “Zappa” is the ideal documentary for any fan of the rock n roll artist or even for non fans like myself, who wish to learn more about the musician. Although Alex Winter’s documentary didn’t turn me into a fan of Zappa, it did teach me a lot about him in it’s definitive and overstretched two hour film. “Zappa” is a movie that plunges into the Frank Zappa legend and touches on literally every aspect of his life and career, from birth to death. Director Alex Winter gains so much insight into Zappa’s life thanks to the individuals and materials found in Frank Zappa’s CIA looking bunker of personal archives. A vault filled floor to ceiling with recordings, films and master tapes all that Alex Winter had full access to. “Zappa” is a testament to his identity as a famously driven, often cantankerous, perfectionist and always demanding musician, composer, artist and workaholic. There is so much to unpack, that both hardcore fans and non fans will learn something new. Alex Winter’s film is restless, playful, assaultive and aims to give the most in-depth portrait as possible of the famously undefinable artist. His film doesn’t just explore Zappa’s life; he surrounds and penetrates it. Party on dude!
Actor Alex Winter (Bill of “Bill & Ted”, “The Lost Boys”) has had a busy 2020 that included directing the HBO documentary “Showbiz Kids” and acting in the third installment of the Bill & Ted trilogy, “Bill & Ted Face the Music”. But Winter also had one more project up his sleeve, the documentary “Zappa”. The film about the oddball musician Frank Zappa is well…an odd and occasionally jarring documentary, but it really can’t be anything but those things, especially once you meet the man himself.
The film feels like an autobiography created by Zappa himself in the way it plays like a heartfelt tribute and adopts Zappa’s rhythms and style in giving us a disorienting documentary. “Zappa” is the ideal documentary for any fan of the rock n roll artist or even for non fans like myself, who wish to learn more about the musician. Although Alex Winter’s documentary didn’t turn me into a fan of Zappa, it did teach me a lot about him in it’s definitive and overstretched two hour film.
“Zappa” was originally scheduled to premiere at South by Southwest in March, but was pushed back when that festival was canceled due to the threat of the pandemic. It’s now scheduled to open in a wider theatrical release and on-demand on Nov. 27th after a special limited theatrical event on Nov. 23rd.
“Zappa” is a movie that plunges into the Frank Zappa legend and touches on literally every aspect of his life and career, from birth to death. Director Alex Winter gains so much insight into Zappa’s life thanks to the many members of Zappa’s family and band members who are on hand to reminisce. Much of the story is told through the individuals and materials from Frank Zappa’s personal archives in which Winter had access to it all from the generous support of the Frank Zappa estate.
Alex Winter gets access to a vault that looks like a CIA bunker, kept inside Zappa’s home with aisles of recordings stacked floor to ceiling; featuring master tapes, the recording of the time Eric Clapton came over to his house and the home horror movies he made in the mid-’50s with his father’s 8mm camera. It yielded material that has remained unseen, along with audiotapes that allows Zappa to narrate the first part of the film himself, despite his death of a four year battle with prostate cancer in 1993. He was 52.
“Zappa” kicks off with the last concert appearance he made in 1991, at the Sports Hall in Prague, where he came to to celebrate the fall of the Iron Curtain. He was greeted like a messiah, because Zappa’s music, to many Czechs, was the incarnation of freedom. Zappa is recorded saying, “This is the first time I’ve had a reason to play guitar in three years. As you confront the changes that will take place, please try to keep your country unique”. Funny he says that since as “Zappa” makes clear, that he spent his whole career in keeping himself to be a unique artist. Alex Winter’s documentary pays respect to a guy and artist who’s isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but Winter makes all of us gain some sense of respect for Zappa.
Zappa had released 62 albums during his lifetime (53 more albums of his material have been released since his death) and they’re a testament to his identity as a famously driven, often cantankerous and always demanding musician, composer, artist and workaholic. Zappa’s music was meticulously composed but a seemingly freeform blend of rock with blues, jazz, psychedelica and avant-garde classical. Zappa’s music was wildly adventurous and at times, fiendishly hard to play. The musicians who often worked with him, say he didn’t always have much patience for the people he was asking to play it and made them rehearse for 8 to 10 hours at a time. One band member stated how he had played with Zappa for over four years and only once did Zappa shake his hand and acknowledge that he had done good work.
Where many music documentaries present full cut songs or large chunks of the artists songs. “Zappa” is instead built around snippets of his music and hearing his pieces of music out of context doesn’t give you a real sense of what his long and complex, fractured compositions were really like. Zappa loathed the radio-based machinery of the rock marketplace and he set out to subvert it with almost every album he made. He was a man of contradiction, a man who despised the music business and who cared less to make a hit song. He also hated drugs, he was proud of not doing them and advised people not to do them either, but smoked cigarettes like a chimney.
Not knowing much about Zappa there is a lot to learn for the non fans and the fans will probably learn something new since there is so much to unpack. In 1956, he put together a band called the Blackouts that got in trouble for being a mixed-race ensemble. But Zappa, who was already immersed in composing serious orchestral music, didn’t actually pen a rock ‘n’ roll song until the 1960s. His band, the Mothers of Invention, released their debut album, “Freak Out!” in 1966 and for a while they were the first rock band with horns (presaging Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago) and a scruffy counterculture vehicle for Zappa’s fledgling ambitions as a composer.
The private side of Zappa is also showcased in a startling section that deals with what happened in 1971, when a deranged audience member shoved him off the stage of the Rainbow Theatre in London, an incident that put him in a wheelchair for nine months. His wife Gail Zappa, raised their four children when Frank was on the road (she died in 2015), speaks candidly, about what life with Frank was really like and how he was a loving husband, but it was no picnic. There’s also a clip of Zappa from the ’70s talking about sleeping with groupies as a kind of prerogative and how he treats chlamydia as if it were an occupational hazard. He was far from a perfect citizen and never claimed to be.
Zappa reacted by embracing his inner rock snob. He became an elder statesman for the name of rock n roll by testifying before Congress against the rating of albums. “Zappa” winds up being a tribute to that side of Frank Zappa: the maestro who was a startlingly austere and accomplished composer and someone who was quite open about the fact that he had regarded the American pop-music landscape as a corrupt wasteland.
The film is restless, playful and assaultive at a lengthy two hours. It aims to give the most in-depth portrait as possible of a famously undefinable artist and Alex Winter’s film succeeds wonderfully at it. With unprecedented access to Zappa’s own personal archives, Winter has assembled a document that feels like it was created by Zappa himself. He is the main narrator and sits at the center of every piece of footage. Alex Winter doesn’t just explore Zappa’s life; he surrounds and penetrates it. Party on dude!
GRADE: ★★★★☆ (4 out of 5)