(Directed by Alex Winter) (2020)
Frank Zappa (21/12/1940 – 4/12/1993) was a one man show created for an audience of one: himself. Obsessively writing, arranging and producing realms of material, he’d allow others to perform with him, though they were never quite good enough, and he’d suffer people to buy his records or attend his concerts, although they weren’t really hip enough to understand the work. It was either his way or go elsewhere. And his unorthodox, multi-faceted output is always interesting, even if, for example, a double album like 200 Motels turns out to be a bizarre waste of time. He was the Alban Berg of our epoch. But records such as Freak Out!, Joe’s Garage and the parody of Zoot Allures are gold (check out “Disco Boy”). Frank didn’t need drugs; like Dali, he was drugs, and while his 60 odd records are wildly uneven, he was consistently dismissive of convention and defiantly libertarian (he did time on an obscenity rap), and the world is slightly better for his weird and wonderful 52 years on earth.
Zappa was a classic industry outlier, who went out of his way to avoid commercial success. Where it arrived, it did by accident (such as his novelty song with daughter Moon Unit, “Valley Girl”). One critic said of his oeuvre: “sexist adolescent drivel … with meters and voicings and key changes that are as hard to play as they are easy to forget.” But who can wholly ignore a man who writes a song called “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow”? His audience was a cult, but an informed, self-knowing one.
This documentary of Zappa’s life and work is alright (it’s not The Sorrow and the Pity, or Brother’s Keeper, or Weiner, but is trying its best) with archival footage from interviews, concerts and home movies, and rare access to a myriad tapes and films collected over the decades. Frank’s long-suffering wife, Gail, speaks, seemingly without severity, about his high infidelity, especially when away on the road, that enraged others far more than she. His musical colleagues were long-suffering as well: Frank was a paranoid perfectionist, who would work at a slice of sound until the season changed and the ducks headed to Moscow. He didn’t care about moving record ‘units’, only to get out the sound that was in his head. Which explains the high turnover in his band, ‘The Mothers of Invention.’ As a result, Zappa obtained a nasty reputation as a dictatorial egomaniac. It is telling that both he and another musical auteur, Peter Gabriel, often drove their collaborators to distraction and perhaps salved their inner dictators by publicly supporting the newly freed Czech Republic. And in the film we see Zappa’s last recorded guitar performance in the Czech Republic, after the fall of the Soviet Union. He suggests to the ecstatic throng “keep it unique,” which was perhaps his own motto.
However, one left the theatre having more questions than gotten answers. We had no deconstruction of what Zappa was trying to do or why he was regarded as a genius. Wallpaper was glued over the wildly patchy, sometimes puerile ideas and left largely unexplained was the unpleasant cacophony ever prone to leap out of the bushes. Still, the film sent this viewer home to play Zoot Allures and even, god help us, 200 Motels.
But at the end of the day, we got more out of the Norman Gunston interview with Frank, including a musical number that went from start to end!