There is no one like Frank Zappa. After almost 20 years after his death, Alex Winter, with the cooperation of the Zappa Family Trust, released a very good documentary about Zappa.
I cannot say that I was a fan of Zappa’s music, it was always a bit theatrical and strange to me.
This is the Frank Zappa I first heard about, the Mothers of Invention, a freak show in the last half of the 1960s. Who was this guy?
Zappa fought against making pop music, steering toward more complex and rewarding styles of music. Zappa had been writing classical music since he was a kid, and that influenced his music over his lifetime. His music could be described many ways: progressive, fusion, theatrical,avant-garde, post-punk and many other terms. You hear over and over how Zappa never stopped working. When he wasn’t writing and recording, he was on the road.
After a battle with a record company, he started his own label. He would own his recording and publishing. In his basement he had a home recording studio and a large storage vault of decades of recordings, films, pictures and artwork. All of this belongs to the Zappa Family Trust, run primarily by Ahmet Zappa. The documentary does not include any of the drama in the Zappa family after his death. Wife Gail was shrewd about copywriting and legally protecting anything Zappa, including the name. According to various sources, she put the Trust in debt by all of the lawsuits and legal fees spent against anyone making a dollar from the Zappa legacy. After her death, the legal fireworks extended to her children over use of the Zappa name, merchandising and concert advertisements. Although the legal action was settled, it no doubt left bitterness between some of the siblings, which is why they are generally absent from the documentary. In the documentary, Zappa says that he does not really have friends, outside of his wife and four kids. How ironic, and sad, that Zappa’s legacy would be so decisive to his family.
Zappa occasionally gave in to commercial whims with songs like “Dancin’ Fool” and “Valley Girl” but his heart and interest was not in by the numbers pop music. He was an odd shaped peg trying to fit with a conventional shaped hole.
The film utilizes Zappa’s own film archives, and animation, in telling his story. Zappa created films as a kid and seemed to always have a camera handy tracing various events in his life. He was also a sketch artist and designed rather dark humor greeting cards. For me, it is not unusual to understand Zappa’s ability to tell visual stories, applying his same creativity to film as he did with music. Zappa might have been a child prodigy, I haven’t heard that term raised, but when a child begins composing classical music, and writing the charts for different instruments, that is a very amazing talent. His interest in rock music came later.
Frank Zappa was always an enigma to me, as he probably was to many. You do not have to be a fan of his music to appreciate his story. He was a complicated man, probably born in the wrong century. He would have been at home in the time of the great classical composers. He just happened to be born in the rock and roll generation. Zappa was an amazing guitar player, but never a traditional rock player. Thankfully, there tons of live and studio tracks to explore of evidence of his style and craft.
The film makes use of extensive interviews conducted over many years, including with Zappa’s wife Gail (before she died in 2015), musicians from his bands, friends and associates. Son Ahmet is a producer of the film and heads the Zappa Family Trust. He wanted the film to show his dad’s warts as well as his brilliance. Zappa was no saint, the film freely presents many of his blemishes. He was an adulterer, an absentee father much of the time, a perfectionist, not one to express his appreciation, a control-freak, and a hedonist. Nobody is perfect.
When conservatives raised hell about music lyrics and took the battle to Congress for a legislative fix, it was Zappa that took to the defensive to protect free speech. Here was a guy who wasn’t being played on the radio or selling that many albums and tapes, but he stood on principle. He cut his hair, bought some conservative suits and testified before Congress and visited the news and interview shows. Zappa might have had an outlandish reputation in polite society, but he was articulate, well-spoken, and prepared for the debate.
Frank Zappa died from advanced prostate cancer at age 52, having lived a pretty interesting life, but there was much more he wanted to do. What he left behind is still being unearthed and appreciated.