“Zappa” (Magnolia Pictures, 2020) chronicles the life and music of Frank Zappa, self-taught musical genius who not only achieved tremendous musical success, but also threw himself into the political turmoil of record censorship when most artist only stuck their heads in the sand. Working with the Zappa Family Trust, the footage used is nothing short of amazing—home movies, practice sessions, concert footage and numerous interviews. Even for someone who professes to be a Zappa fan, there are enough surprises about his life in this movie that it becomes much more than a documentary, in fact an exciting story of a man who never failed to go the way he wanted.
Director and writer Alex Winter (Bill & Ted Face The Music) has compiled some wonderful interviews from those who knew Zappa best. His widow Gail Zappa presents not only a view into the rock days but also a view into his family life. Probably the most poignant line in the entire movie, and a telling look at the privacy of Zappa’s life, is when he was interviewed and asked about his friends. The reply was simple, “I have no friends, I have my wife and four children.” Even though he was utterly consumed with his music, his family was right there in terms of importance.
Pamela des Barres, Ian Underwood, Ruth Underwood, Steve Vai, Bunk Gardner and more band members and crew tell stories about life around the Mothers of Invention. Kudos is given though to everyone, they did not paint everything as rosy. Along with Frank Zappa’s creative genius came an often aloof, taskmaster who was a perfectionist but not full of praise. Zappa was hard to get to know, but none of those who worked with him would deny that it was an awe-inspiring experience.Of course, Zappa did very well artistically, but never achieved a Top 40 hit, until he went into the studio with teen daughter Moon Unit. In some revealing footage, they talk about how it came about, how Frank heard the news and how it changed their lives. Again, some of the archival footage that has been used makes this an intimate portrait, possibly one of the best true documentaries made from real footage instead of docu-drama acting. Frank Zappa released 62 albums during his lifetime, including classics such as Freak Out!, We’re Only In It For The Money, Sheik Yerbouti and Just Another Band From LA; and the Zappa Family Trust has posthumously released another 54 albums.
Frank Zappa started out playing rock, but he developed a love of classical music early on. Zappa also chronicles the influence of French composer Edgard Varese, who was one of the pioneers of the new atonal music and the use of new and electronic instruments in classical music. Not only did this have a huge influence on Zappa’s later rock compositions, but it also led to his later writing and ultimate acceptance as a classical composer and conductor of compositions with major orchestras. This too, is where Zappa shines; showing interviews and concert footage that even the diehard Zappaphile may not have been familiar with.
It’s not all about the music in Zappa, however. Time is spent showing how Frank Zappa went to Washington, one of the few major rock musicians to speak out (and very eloquently) at the 1985 PMRC Senate Hearings on Rock Lyrics He presented a solid case against censorship in media and this section of the movie shows a very different side of Zappa’s character. Zappa does conclude with his fight against cancer, again well-chronicled with the footage and interviews of the time. Ultimately, the movie looks at him as he was; a genius, but ultimately human.
As a paean to Frank Zappa, Zappa walks the fine line successfully. It is not a tell-all story, but it also does not avoid the personalities, the groupies, the sex and the pressures of the rock star lifestyle. Alex Winter and the Zappa Family Trust have done quite a job in presenting Frank Zappa as he was; creative genius, misunderstood rock icon, family man, rock rebel and much more. This movie is not just recommended for rock fans of Frank Zappa, but for anyone who wants to see the story of one of the men who changed music in an immense way.
Zappa has just been released on Digital HD, Blu-Ray and DVD. It is a Magnolia Pictures Production of an Alex Winter Film. Phot and one-sheet courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.