I have only once heard about Frank Zappa (1940-1993) during my old college years. During that cold winter semester of 2001, I attended a philosophy class just for getting extra credits, and its young lecturer introduced to us a bit on Zappa and his music on one day. At that time, it seemed to me that Zappa was just your typical rock musician in the 1960s, but, probably because of that lecturer’s genuinely enthusiastic presentation, Zappa has somehow stayed in the corner of my brain even though I just merely remembered his name without much interest in his artistic career.
That is why I became interested in Alex Winter’s documentary film “Zappa” when I heard about it around the end of 2020, and I had a very enlightening time when I belatedly watched it in this morning. At first, it feels like your average musician biography documentary, but then it freely examines many different interesting aspects of this famous musician, and the overall result is alternatively informative and entertaining through the 127-minute running time.
After the opening part showing Zappa’s 1991 concert in Prague, Czech, the documentary moves onto Zappa’s early life. After becoming quite interested in music during his adolescent years, he absorbed various kinds of music ranging from R&B to avant-garde orchestral music during his following self-taught period, and he soon started to work as a rock band member although his parents did not approve of that much.
In 1965, Zappa came to have his own band, and this band, named the Mothers of Invention, gradually gained its status with its first two albums: “Freak Out” and “We’re Only In it for the Money”. As a musician influenced a lot by modern avant-garde composers such as Edgard Varèse, he never hesitated from doing anything new or experimental, and that drew more attention from not only many rock music fans but also a number of notable musicians such as the Beatles, who actually attempted to emulate Zappa’s musical style in case of one certain famous album of theirs.
The carefree mood of the 1960s in California was eventually shattered by that infamous incident involved with Charles Manson and his murderous followers, and then Zappa’s career took a downturn when he was suddenly attacked by some crazy dude during a stage concert in 1971, but that did not daunt him at all. While he had to be wheelchair-bound for a while due to his physical injury, he never stopped pursuing his musical passion, and he also made a number of stop-motion animation short films just because he got very interested after meeting one enthusiastic animator.
During the 1980s, Zappa was not so amused by the prominent commercialization in the American music industry, but that did not stop from his accidental artistic collaboration with one of his four children. As his wife Gail points out during her interview, he was not exactly a model husband and father to his family for many years, but he later came to spend more time with his family, and, to everyone’s delight and excitement, what he made along with his daughter became a popular hit song which subsequently garnered them a Grammy nomination.
He also became an unlikely defender of artistic freedom when some right-wing American politicians and activists attempted censorship on the American music industry. For persuading many people out there, Zappa made himself much more presentable than before, but that did not affect his sharp wit and intelligence at all, and he certainly drew lots of public attention on his cause, though the outcome was not entirely satisfying for him due to a bit of compromise.
As entering the 1990s, Zappa was ready for the next chapter of his life, but then there came a bad news. He was diagnosed to have pancreas cancer, and his treatment seemed to work well for a while, but it eventually turned out that he did not have much time to live not long after when he did a concert performance in Prague in 1991. Nevertheless, he kept working as usual before he died in 1995, and we get a poignant moment when the Kronos Quartet plays one of his later works composed during that period.
It is clear that Winter, who has been mainly known to us for “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989) and its two sequels, has lots of respect and affection to the main subject of his documentary, and he skillfully mixes a bunch of interview clips and archival footage clips for giving us a vivid and interesting portrayal of Zappa’s life and career. Many interviewees in the documentary willingly and candidly talk about Zappa and his music as his friends and collaborators, and I was particularly interested to see Ian Underwood, who is not only one of Zappa’s close collaborators but also, as any film music enthusiast like me will gladly tell you, a frequent keyboardist in many works of late James Horner.
In conclusion, “Zappa” is a commendable tribute to Zappa’s life and career, and you will have some interest in his works even if you have not heard much about him. To be frank with you, I do not love all those works of his appearing in the documentary, but I was still impressed a lot by how dexterously he swung over many different musical genres, and I am actually considering checking out some of his other works later. That says a lot about how much the documentary works for me, isn’t it?