Zappa movie poster

Frank Zappa is one of those musicians it feels like I’ve just always known about, however he’s not someone I’ve ever really consciously listened to or actually, it turns out, known that much about.

My knowledge of Zappa then pretty much went that he was a musician who, with his band The Mothers Of Invention, came out of the ‘hippy’ and psychedelic counterculture movement of the 1960s which, it appears, is somewhat to miss the point and miss out a large section of this work.

I’m pleased to say then that Alex Winter’s (yes, Bill S. Preston Esq himself) 2020 documentary, Zappa, has filled in some gaps.

Zappa and The Mothers
Zappa and The Mothers

Starting with a performance in Prague following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, his last public guitar based performance apparently, it then jumps back to a fairly chronological run at Zappa’s life from his birth in 1940 through to his death in 1993.

Through this we chart his entire career at a fairly brisk pace with new interviews with band members and collaborators as well as clips from an astonishing archive of film and music to which Winter was given access by Zappa’s widow Gail, who is also interviewed.

The sections that use this archive, and adopt something of a ‘cut up’ approach to the editing, are by far the most interesting and feel most in tune with Zappa and his work.

Zappa studio movie

These appear more earlier in the film as we find out about his formative years, how he got into making music (certainly an unconventional approach compared to most so-called ‘rock stars’) and the first period of The Mothers.

After that though it does go all a bit standard which is something of a shame, but I got the feeling there was so much to fit getting too abstract about it would have meant things getting missed, and it already feels like quite a high level version of the story.

Also, while the film is packed with Zappa’s music, it all feels somewhat anonymous and in the background so, while it gets talked about a lot, we don’t get the chance to hear a huge amount in any sort of depth and it didn’t, unlike other documentaries about musicians, give me enough to want to dive into his back catalogue (though given how extensive that is I’m not sure where I’d start anyway).

Zappa movie

One great part of the film was that late 1960s section that, following recently watching The Beatles: Get Back and Echo In The Canyon, added to aspects of both and the Laurel Canyon scene as a whole without shying away from the hints of darkness it involved to.

Also fascinating were the sections about Zappa’s involvement in the campaign against the PMRC in the 80s which is certainly overlooked in other discussions of that situation, as well as his orchestral work which, as it’s shown here, appears truly astonishing, if somewhat obscure.

Zappa movie

While it paints Zappa as something of an awkward obsessive perfectionist, the general gist of the film focuses more on his work than his personality, which is fine though there are hints of more to explore there too.

Ultimately then Zappa is somewhat disappointingly run of the mill in how it’s made and cramming such a varied and busy life (even if it was relatively short) into two hours means it all feels like things are rushed through and you could almost make four movies out of different aspects of the story told here though there’s a lot here to whet the appetite to find out more, particularly for a Zappa novice like me.

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