“It won’t be professional, it’ll just be music.” These are the first words spoken in Alex Winter’s expansive rock-doc “Zappa” — a two-hour chronological overview of the titular legend’s artistic process that benefits from access to unseen footage in the family’s vault — and the key to understanding the contradictions at the heart of the film’s prolific and provocative subject.
Frank Zappa was many things: self-taught composer, occasional filmmaker, precise mastermind of a circus of tonal talent, and pioneer of independent music in the purest sense of the word, dedicated to separating creative and commercial interests in a way that feels far ahead of his time, united by the illuminating idea that life should be more funny and less miserable.
Frank Zappa himself guides us through decades of archival interviews, narrating his own story like a message from beyond the grave and giving the documentary a feel of having been made over dozens of years. He starts with a discussion of his childhood love of editing that feels like a meta moment, drawing attention to the fine-tuned construction of Winter’s film.
The style from there is playful and dynamic, inventive and fast-paced, clearly the work of a careful student of Zappa’s life and career.
Fortunately this film is not only suited for geeks, fanboys, and true heads, but serves just as well as a perfect introduction for novices sampling the unclassifiable world of this sonic satirist and control freak for the first time. Intermittent talking head segments, populated by many of Zappa’s former collaborators, paint a picture of the man as seen from the outside: passionate, mildly cruel, aloof, “a slave to his inner ear,” and other hallmarks of a brilliant and restless creative mind, describing his output as something he’d “rather not be played than played wrong.”
On record as saying that “what we do is designed to annoy people,” Frank Zappa was also an articulate and equal-opportunity smart ass, bashing drug use and “Saturday Night Live” as readily as he criticized the Washington Wives Club so eager to label musical expression as too explicit for young listeners. He served as both a bastion against state-sanctioned censorship in the United States and a symbol of freedom to fans in the recently-fractured Soviet Union, a man of principled action instead of one paying lip service to lofty ideals.
Despite this proximity to political activism, at the end of the day Zappa was ultimately a wry absurdist with a sharp tongue and an extended middle-finger: “we were loud, we were coarse, we were strange, and if anybody in the audience ever gave us any trouble, we’d tell ‘em to fuck off.”
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