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‘Zappa’ Review: A Smart and Simple Portrait of Rock’s Most Unclassifiable Genius

Alex Winter's dense but accessible Frank Zappa doc doesn't capture all of who Zappa was so much as it conveys why that would be impossible.


Sooner or later, any commercially viable documentary about the life and work of avant-garde musician Frank Zappa — outsider art’s ultimate inside man — has to grapple with the same headache from which Zappa suffered for the length of his career: the hostile relationship between commerce and creation. The biologically improbable love child of a time-bending orgy between Igor Stravinsky, Weird Al Yankovic, Jacob Collier, and Led Zeppelin (or maybe it would be easier to just call him a true original), the self-appointed Mother of Invention was a composer by nature, and a rock star by necessity.

He strove to create music that was alive with the same unbridled sense of freedom as he was; music that captured the absurdity of this world and served it back to the masses on wax. As Zappa is heard saying in the new and compellingly well-sourced Alex Winter documentary that bears his name: “A lot of what we do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it. And something has to be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it.” That ethos resulted in aggressively satirical psychedelia like “We’re Only in it for the Money,” abrasive A-sides like “I Have Been in You” (the lead track off 1979’s immortal “Sheik Yerbouti”), and visionary suites that laundered the history of jazz through joke titles like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” Zappa spent his entire life trying to thrash his way out of the one-size-fits-all straitjacket of the record industry; he marched to the beat of his own cacophonous rhythm section, and struggled to afford them until the day he died.

Here was a guy whose very essence was a repudiation to the prefab arcs and simple chord progressions of the music docs that would become a veritable cottage industry in the decades after his death. To really get at the man behind the music, a movie about Zappa would probably have to be as wild and feral and occasionally unpleasant as he was; it would have to be erratic in a way that would leave most people out in the cold, and make even its target audience feel like they were walking around with a pebble in their shoe. This is not that. A longtime labor of love that Winter only managed to fund by raising more than a million dollars on Kickstarter (Zappa’s actual house remains an unclaimed perk), “Zappa” is unavoidably bogged down by a financial imperative to make some of its money back.

Winter evinces a contagious fascination with Zappa’s legend, as well as a lucid understanding of the Pollock-like purity that underscored his messy-seeming life (the filmmaker gets a lot of mileage from the exclusive access he was granted to Zappa’s endless personal archives, making this doc a must-see even for hardcore fans who know all the basic details by heart). Alas, the trouble with trying to capture a mercurial artist on such a legible canvas is that the attempt — no matter how sincere and self-aware it might be — can only do justice to its subject through its failure to see them clearly.

Capping off a banner year that also included a sober profile of childhood stardom and a heroic throwback performance in “Bill and Ted Face the Music,” Winter bookends his doc with Zappa’s death from prostate cancer in 1993 at the age of 52, and spends the 120 minutes in between pinballing from one artistic pursuit to another. Zappa says that you have one note in life and so you should really play the shit out of it, but this extremely dense film endeavors to show us the many different pitches that note can take. Despite its predominately linear chronological approach, “Zappa” offers a hectic flurry of influences and ideas that get sucked into all sorts of rapids and riptides as it follows the current downstream.

Winter ambushes viewers with the Zappa of it all in a way that echoes Zappa’s arrival on the American music scene. The movie doesn’t bend over backward to make you care about the musical anarchist at its core or rely on talking heads to certify his greatness (Winter’s quality-over-quantity approach to interviewees pays massive dividends, as platitudes are ditched in favor of soul-probing conversations with loved ones like Zappa’s late wife Gail and his long-suffering percussionist Ruth Underwood). It trusts that the centrifugal force of Zappa’s energy will grow strong enough to command your attention, and it does.

All the standard intel is here, augmented with enough never-before-seen footage to bring it back to life. Zappa’s childhood, his first experiences with playing live music — highlighted by a look at his time in The Blackouts, a mixed-race ensemble that helped Zappa acquire his taste for spitting in the face of white American “decency” — and his rise to fame with the Mothers of Invention are all laid out in a frenzied slipstream of biographical facts. Efforts to visualize Zappa’s combustible love for cultural synthesis (e.g. clips from old “Godzilla” movies and stock footage from hokey industrial films) add little texture to this look inside the life of the mind, but it’s hard to fault Winter for trying. Zappa himself was famous for swinging at wild pitches: “If you could make life more colorful than it actually was,” we hear him say, “that was good.”

It’s easier for Winter to match the musician’s tempo once the film gets into the glory days and the zigzag trajectory of Zappa’s life takes over. There’s more going on in the margins of this movie than there is in some entire bio docs; someone could make a whole feature about Zappa’s relationship with Claymation artist Bruce Bickford, which began after an on-stage attack left Zappa in a wheelchair for nine months (the raw footage of their heated collaboration is wonderful). Ditto the production of Zappa’s disastrous “200 Motels,” one of the worst-reviewed films ever made (here, it’s brushed under the rug).

As Winter ricochets from one pocket of work to another, the police sketch of a man starts to emerge: A man who resented the collateral that his artistic freedom required from him, self-sabotaged much of the mainstream success that threatened to box him in, and never outran the feeling that it was all going to go up in flames. A man who was loyal and sincere, and yet tone deaf to the emotional support that other people needed from him. Not only does Winter serve up the backstory of how Zappa and his then-teenage daughter Moon Unit collaborated on the novelty hit “Valley Girl” — they were strangers in the same house, and Moon was desperate for some time with her dad — he shows us the actual note that she slid under her Frank’s door “introducing” herself. An unparalleled independent streak might be fun to mythologize, but it’s a different story for the people who depend on you.

Even after two long and exhausting hours, “Zappa” leaves you with a sense that its namesake is still beyond the cusp of your understanding, and not only because so many of the people who knew him convey the same thing to Winter. Zappa was “a walking mass of contradictions” and “fucking with America as much as he was fucking with music” and a brilliant composer who struggled with the more radio-friendly currency of his times (at least until the stars aligned and he got his hands on a Synclavier a few years before his death). And he was all of these things all of the time.

As a distillation of what made Zappa special, Winter’s doc can’t hold a candle to any of the musician’s best songs or climactic symphonies (the latter of which this film at long last rescues from the footnotes of rock history). Zappa wouldn’t have been Zappa if it could. The good news is that Winter seems to have recognized that from the start, and made a certain peace with the low ceiling of his film’s conventional structure. Maybe someone will come along and make the mind-flaying, “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters”-esque biopic this guy deserves, but this was never going to be that. Instead, Winter has assembled a commercially viable doc about the futility of making a commercially viable doc about Frank Zappa, and by that measure his film can only be an unqualified success.

Grade: B-

Magnolia Pictures will release “Zappa” on VOD on Friday, November 27.

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