A documentary about the life and work of Frank Zappa is so obvious that it seems like there should already have been four or five of them. Watching Alex Winter’s Zappa, it becomes clear why no one attempted it before, and why Winter is the right filmmaker for the job. How can any one film capture the spirit of a perfectionist who delighted in deconstruction? Zappa was a prolific, genre-hopping creative force with a staggeringly large catalog who was indifferent to recognition. Where do you begin with a life so varied that even his most conventional output defies categorization?
He sounds like an enigma, but he didn’t live like one. Mining the Zappa family vaults, Winter tells Zappa’s story largely in his own words, using archival footage and interviews, most of which had never been seen or heard since they were recorded. Part of Zappa’s genius was the ability to see the way our society places value on the valueless while rejecting anything of substance, and makes idols of one-trick ponies. He lived and reveled among rock stars but was not one of them, detesting drugs, and involving himself as much in the business side of his enterprise as the creative. Their goal was sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. His was to make music.
Many of the stories in Zappa will be familiar to viewers who have read The Real Frank Zappa Book, his almost-memoir, from his small-town upbringing, finding beauty in things rejected by white suburbia (especially R&B and avant-garde noise music), his arrest for “conspiracy to commit pornography” (yes, really), all the way through his many musical projects and showdown with the Parents Music Resource Center. Winter’s Zappa could be viewed as a companion piece to that book, telling the rest of his story from after the book was published in 1989 to his death from prostate cancer in 1993. Zappa’s goal in life, as he explains several times in the film, was to make music so that he could take it home and listen to it, and if anyone else wanted to listen too, he would make it available to them. Much of his worldview appears to have been shaped by obstacles put in his way, from censorship to businessmen to hollow rock stardom.
Nobody explains Zappa better than Zappa himself, and while The Real Frank Zappa Book lays out his point of view, Zappa explores his wider impact. Interviews conducted with musicians who worked with him, all the way from the earliest incarnation of the Mothers of Invention to his on-and-off-again collaborators throughout the 1980s, reveal a side of the man not often discussed. He was certainly a perfectionist, and the accurate rendering of what he’d written was a high priority for musicians. Though most of his performers were hired hands, the amount of returning collaborators throughout his work speaks to his relationships with creative people. He wasn’t outwardly compassionate during rehearsal, but the ingenuity of his work and the precision it required was magnetic for those who wanted to devote themselves to it. Comments made by percussionist Ruth Underwood are especially moving; his music broke her out of Juilliard, where she was learning what music should be, while joining the Mothers showed her what it could be, freeing her from playing the triangle in huge orchestras. Near the end of the film, she plays one of the most notoriously difficult Zappa pieces, “The Black Page,” revealing the human dimension of one of his most monstrously technical works.
There would be no Frank Zappa as we know him without his wife Gail, who operated the many dimensions of the family business. Some of the most revealing interviews of the film were conducted with Gail prior to her death in 2015, most notably how she categorizes him. “I married a composer,” she says with a half-proud, half-exhausted grin. “Composer” is telling. Not “musician,” not “perfectionist.” The context in which she used it referred specifically to the less romantic side of being a creative professional and the distance it created. (Both she and Frank are stunningly blunt about his infidelity, neither laughing it off nor dwelling on it.) A rock star’s life is full of passion, explosions of emotion, good and bad, burning out and leaving a compelling (but false) legacy. A composer’s life, meanwhile, is obsessive and never finished. In popular imagination, composers belong to another era and continent, they don’t grow up in 1950s California. Yet that is Frank Zappa, treating even his most rock-infused work with a composer’s sensibility.
The Onion once published a devastating article titled “Frank Zappa Fan Thinks You Just Haven’t Heard The Right Album.” It was painful because it was true. Before this film, there was no entry point. You knew right away whether you were an instant fan, begrudgingly appreciative, or wholly repulsed. Zappa fills an enormous need by effectively condensing the life of a prolific and verbose man without sacrificing an ounce of his complexity.