Reviewed by Stuart Penney
“We were loud, we were coarse, and we were strange. And if anybody in the audience ever gave us any trouble, we’d tell them to fuck off”. So says Frank Zappa in the - spoiler alert! - poignant closing scene of this documentary. It’s the kind of arrogant, no-nonsense image Zappa loved to project, especially during the early Mothers’ years when his musicians resembled (superficially, at least) an outlaw band of brothers, as opposed to the revolving door of academy trained hired guns which came later.
But quotable though it is, this two-dimensional soundbite doesn’t give the full picture. Zappa was a deep and complex personality, constantly tormented by the intricate musical sounds in his head. As Steve Vai (Zappa band guitarist 1980-83) says in the film: “Frank was a slave to his inner ear. He heard things a particular way and he tried to manifest them in the world. But there were limitations”.
Instead of attempting to shoehorn Zappa’s entire life story into just 130 minutes (an impossible task), Alex Winter’s film treads a narrower path and explores the character of one of the most prolific and obsessively creative musicians of the late 20th century. For the most part it succeeds.
Zappa has endured a long and, at times, painful gestation. Five years ago, Winter, the Bill and Ted’s movie actor who is himself a noted director and producer, launched a Kickstarter campaign which raised a record US$1.2 million in just 30 days. The money was used to preserve the vast amount of film and audio archive material sitting in Zappa’s vault. The death of matriarch Gail Zappa and the ensuing bitter (and often public) legal squabbling between the Zappa siblings delayed the project for some time and then COVID-19 arrived. Now at last the film is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. Hard core fans will be pleased to know much of the footage here is unseen and all of the narration has, apparently, never been heard before.
Let’s get the sad stuff out of the way. The action starts in 1991 backstage at the Sports Hall in Prague, following the 1989 withdrawal of Russian troops from Czechoslovakia. Visibly ill from the prostate cancer that would soon claim him at the early age of 52, it was Zappa’s last-recorded guitar performance. This is immediately followed by news of his death, as reported in many languages by TV channels around the world. All this and we’re not yet five minutes in.
Next up is a tour of The Vault, the huge underground storage facility at the former Zappa family home in the Hollywood Hills (now owned by Lady Gaga, fact fans) stacked floor to ceiling with the recorded history of his life’s work, most of it (despite Frank’s prodigious 100+ album output) yet to be released. And, boy, was it a life well-lived. We see boxes containing the original master tapes of Freak Out, Hot Rats, Overnite Sensation, Ship Arriving Too Late To Save A Drowning Witch, Shut Up N’ Play Yer Guitar and other timeless albums. This cuts to some grainy 50s childhood footage made on Frank’s dad’s 8mm movie camera. From there the documentary proceeds roughly chronologically, starting with the family’s 1952 move to California where Zappa Sr worked for the government. But the story really begins when Frank discovers a love of blues and R&B and takes up the guitar.
“When I first picked up the guitar I said, ‘how in the world could anybody get any sound out of this thing?’ Once I figured out that the pitch changed when you put your finger down on the fret, I was hell on wheels” offers Frank, sounding like a precursor of Viz comic’s Mr. Logic.
And so we arrive at Zappa’s first major band, the Mothers Of Invention. I don’t know what Bunk Gardner is taking but I think they should market it. Now an amazingly well-preserved 87 years old (he was born in 1933) Bunk seems as sprightly as a man 20 years younger as he reminisces on life as a Mother. One of several Zappa alumni interviewed for the film, he played sax/woodwind in the early MOI line-up.
The unfailingly delightful Ruth Underwood (vibes / percussion 1972-77) also has a wealth of stories. She met the Mothers during their NYC club residency in 1967 and tells how she was thrown out of a practice room at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for playing one of Frank’s pieces on piano. Ruth pops up several times throughout the film and, together with Joe Travers on drums, delivers a stunning new performance of “The Black Page”, one of Zappa’s most complex and musically challenging pieces.
Zappa’s 60s record label Verve / MGM were terrified of getting sued over the Sgt Pepper spoof on the cover of the third Mothers’ LP We’re Only In It For The Money, so Frank rang McCartney personally asking for legal clearance, only to receive the brush-off. “We have lawyers who deal with that stuff”, sniffed Paul.
Some late 60s footage of the Mothers goofing around in the tourist hotspots of London is entertaining if only for its sheer absurdity (admit it, you’ve always wanted to see Zappa at Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall wearing a bowler hat). He was back in England a year or two later to film 200 Motels. Perhaps because the movie has always been virtually impenetrable even to the most ardent FZ fans (a clutch of truly great rock tunes notwithstanding) this entire period is glossed over rather quickly.
Shortly after this Frank was attacked and thrown off the stage at the Rainbow Theatre in London, bringing the Flo and Eddie-era “vaudeville” band to an end. While convalescing he encountered Bruce Bickford and his wonderfully nightmarish claymation, leading directly to the Baby Snakes movie project. Looking very old and sick (he died of a heart attack in 2019, not long after this interview was filmed) Bickford describes how the most important aspect of making a Zappa clay model was “to get the nose right”.
Problems with obstructive record companies who had little idea how to market him were a constant theme of Zappa’s 70s recording career. Wearing a “Warner Bros Sucks” t-shirt, Frank explains how he once had no fewer than nine active lawsuits out against Warners at the same time. This led directly to the formation of his own Zappa and Barking Pumpkin labels, two of the first fully independent record companies of the late 70s.
He may have seemed like he was enjoying himself during a 1978 appearance on NBC TV’s Saturday Night Live, but Frank apparently hated every minute. “A lot of times, people like what you do for the wrong reasons” he later said. Zappa famously didn’t do drugs and on a show populated by enthusiastic cocaine users the writers thought it would be a great idea to involve Frank in a sketch which made fun of him for NOT taking drugs. This was ironic considering several high-profile SNL cast members ruined their careers or even expired as a direct result of substance abuse.
Zappa’s non-stop work ethic and relentless drive for musical perfection came at some personal cost to his private life. Frank could be a cold fish, remembers Ruth Underwood and he cared little for friendship outside his immediate family. He was also not without flaws and the film doesn’t shy away from the horrendous sexism which was rampant in the 60s and 70s rock world. Frank’s admission that he’d often come back off tour with a dose of the clap and then instruct wife Gail to “go get a prescription” for both of them wouldn’t hold up for a second today, but those surely were different times.
Frank’s 1985 battle against the introduction of record warning labels has been extensively documented elsewhere, but it’s always interesting to see a short-haired, be-suited Zappa taking on Tipper Gore and the pearl-clutching Washington wives of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). He became the go-to guy for the morning TV news programmes speaking out on behalf of musicians who mostly fell silent in the face of music censorship. Despite opposition the Parental Advisory stickers eventually appeared, but Frank’s involvement surely increased public awareness.
Following his final world tour in 1988, Zappa’s prostate cancer diagnosis slowed him down and the final 20 mins of the film make for sad viewing as we see him getting progressively weaker. There was just time to complete one last major project, The Yellow Shark with the Ensemble Modern orchestra which brings the film to an emotional climax. Often overshadowed by his scatological rock material, Zappa’s classical work was of equal importance to him (if not his fans) and this time he seemed (almost) satisfied with the results. Fittingly, the film ends with a long fade-out montage over the beautiful guitar instrumental “Watermelon In Easter Hay” culminating with Frank symbolically turning out the lights in The Vault.
Zappa always stubbornly refused to fit in. Despite looking every inch the long-haired freak, he never aligned himself with the 60s peace and love hippie movement and, equally, with such an expansive and unwieldy back catalogue, his music is unlikely to resonate with today’s streaming and playlist generation. There was no one else remotely like him in the world of popular music. He existed entirely and gloriously outside the orthodoxy of the rock tradition. His music is a wondrous alchemy of comedy, classical, jazz fusion, musique concrete, doo wop, heavy rock and much else besides. He could do it all and he did it in style.
Several have attempted it before with mixed results, but Alex Winter’s 129-minute film comes closer to capturing the essence of the complicated man behind the myth (and, indeed, the moustache) than any Zappa documentary to date.