Film review: ‘ZAPPA’, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’
Frank Zappa, musician, composer, band leader, producer, visual artist, the list goes on, was a perplexing and brilliant figure and perhaps appropriately but still frustratingly, the lengthy and detailed documentary, simply titled Zappa, doesn’t allow us to gain a complete handle on that brilliance. The film comes from director Alex Winter, yes Bill from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure who, without much fanfare, has become a prolific documentarian exploring subjects like the Panama Papers and Blockchain currency.
Initially, Zappa, explores Frank’s childhood, his nascent interest in various artforms including filmmaking, then his first forays into music in the 1960’s which were largely inspired not by the popular music of the time but by the determinedly unpopular avant gardé works of modern composer Edgard Varese as well as Doo Wop and African American R’n’B by the likes of Guitar Slim. This part of the film is both fascinating and irritating. While biographical detail emerges, including Zappa’s thankfully aborted attempt to blow up his high school and his arrest for a fake pornographic audio recording, Winter’s crazed cut-up filmmaking style with its frenetic rapid-fire editing and bizarre images often presented in fast forward is distracting rather than informative and becomes a little tiresome. Fortunately, Winter tones down the mania as he explores Zappa’s phenomenally diverse life and career up until his death in 1993.
Possibly because of the problem of accessing music rights, the film struggles to give us a real sense of Zappa’s work. Fans will be familiar with his astonishingly varied repertoire which saw 60’s psychedelia colliding with skittering neo-classical pieces, knotty jazzy rock, the found sounds of music concrete and flourishes of Stravinsky, often within the one song. The music was accompanied by sharply satirical lyrics and (for this reviewer) annoyingly quirky (and now very dated sounding) comedy often involving silly space alien voices. There are fragments of songs and his much-lauded modern classical compositions in this film but rarely do we hear enough of any piece to gain a clear sense of how it sounded. Some might argue that given Zappa’s wildly diverse approach, this is appropriate but it feels like a loss and I’m not certain non-fans would be converted watching this film.
We gain a clearer sense of the man himself. Through extensive home video and media footage (which comes from Zappa’s vast personal archive) and a multitude of interviews with former members from his ever-changing outfit the Mothers of Invention (including metal legend Steve Vai), a picture emerges of an artistic polymath, a provocateur, a perfectionist, a demanding band leader and social activist but also of an at times egotistical and aloof person. Frank actually says at one point he has no friends although he clearly had a long-standing friendship with musician Captain Beefheart and claymation filmmaker Bruce Bickford as well a long and stable marriage to wife Gail who appears throughout the film.
One of his band members, Ruth Underwood, describes him as a walking mass of contradictions and it seems she couldn’t be more correct. Zappa often derided the clichéd rockstar lifestyle but by his own admission indulged that stereotype when it came to groupies. He opposed authority but by all accounts was authoritarian toward his musicians. He was obviously a hard man to please as he spends much of the film complaining that his hired musicians, who at one point include the London Symphony Orchestra, won’t play his music the way he wants. At one stage he ditches the humans and turns to a digital synthesiser, the Synclavier in the hope of recording pristine versions of his music.
Something that surprises many is that, although he believed in decriminalizing drugs, Frank didn’t indulge in them and actually objected to the hippie drug culture, occasionally satirising it in his music. The film shows a cringeworthy Saturday Night Live sketch where Zappa was the guest and John Belushi and others play stoners amazed that he made albums like Freak Out without chemical enhancement. Zappa looks extremely uncomfortable and says the sketch sucked.
Winter is keen to portray Frank as a champion of free speech with much time dedicated to Frank’s senate testimony against the Orwellian-named Parents Music Resource Council (PMRC) who wanted to sticker and possibly censor rap and metal. The film also suggests that he partly inspired the Czech Velvet Revolution in the late 80’s. This saw Frank greeted by masses of adoring fans at the Prague airport and had him hobnobbing with Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel who appointed him as a culture, tourism and trade ambassador, a position that was apparently given the kibosh by US Secretary of State James Baker whose wife was part of the PMRC.
While the film shows Frank as a bursting reservoir of artistic inspiration, it would have been a little more satisfying to gain a clearer perspective on his discography and exactly how his music evolved. Still, there’s plenty to chew in on this densely packed examination of one of music’s most intriguing mavericks.
Nick’s rating: ***1/2
Director(s): Alex Winter.
Release date: 11th Feb 2021.
Running time: 129 mins.
Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM. Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. http://subcultureentertainment.com/2014/02/the-good-the-bad-the-ugly-film-show
- Rock Photographer Philip Morris talk about his new book ‘Its A Long Way To The Top from Acca Dacca to Zappa’ on Purple Haze
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- ‘Built For Speed’ Playlist, Friday 29th July 2016
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- Built For Speed, Playlist, Friday 11th August 2017