Alex Winter’s Most Excellent Frank Zappa Film

An in-depth, touching and quite entertaining examination of the late musical genius’ life and impact

FZ (Art: Ron Hart)

As cliché as it is to say, composer / guitarist / satirist Frank Zappa was a one-of-a-kind artist; in fact, he fused together so many different styles—classical, doo-wop, avant-garde, jazz fusion, blues, rock, etc.—and sentiments that his music often defied categorization. 

Rather, Zappa just sounded like Zappa, and while there have been many documentaries over the years that captured his genius to varying degrees, none have matched the depth, earnestness, and heart of Zappa.
Directed by Alex Winter (yes, of Bill & Ted / The Lost Boys fame), it’s a surprisingly thorough and emotional tour through Zappa’s life. Featuring interviews with many key players, lots of performance footage, and even glimpses into the monumental Zappa archives (that were essentially locked away from any and all interested parties previously), Zappa is both an essential watch for fans and a great example of how to do a biographical documentary right.

Obviously, it took Winter many years to put it together and get it released. In the official press release, he aptly explains: “This is the most ambitious project I’ve ever worked on, with a couple years of archival preservation in addition to several years to make the film itself. This isn’t your typical music doc, but rather a multi-faceted narrative that aims to bring this complex artist to life.”

Indeed, the film is a meticulously compiled labor of love that covers the life of its subject from birth (in 1940) to untimely death (in 1993), with myriad insights into his creative processes and goals. This includes a look at his musical upbringing, his early gigs doing film scores, the formation of the Mothers of Invention, the release of debut Freak Out!, and pretty much every significant musical development that came after.

Zappa film poster (Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

There’s also a lot of time devoted to exploring his behind-the-scenes antics and authoritative role as bandleader—both the positive and negative aspects—with plenty of archival explanations from Zappa alongside new interviews from key players like Steve Vai, Mike Keneally, Ruth Underwood, and even his widow, Gail. For example, Bunk Gardner reflects: “We would go in for a minimum of eight or ten or twelve hours. . . . It didn’t matter if it was Christmas or Thanksgiving or whatever. We were going to rehearse.” Likewise, Underwood confesses that Zappa could be relatively unfriendly and demanding as their task master, but that she knew that he always cared about and appreciated his band beneath it all.

Beyond that, the film tackles a lot about Zappa’s personal and political life. For instance, he wasn’t really a fan of music until his teenage years, and he grew up facing the realities of poison gases due to his father’s occupation. Later, the documentary dives into Zappa’s crusade against censorship, how his work life took away from his home life (such as his children feeling disconnected from him, leading him to create “Valley Girl” with daughter Moon), and his job as Czechoslovakia’s “Special Ambassador to the West on Trade, Culture and Tourism.” His prostate cancer diagnosis and final professional ambitious are also undertaken, of course, leading viewers to feel that they truly understand Zappa the man as much as they do Zappa the musician.  

Really, that’s all that should be said about Zappa without spoiling too much of it. From start to finish, it’s a deeply affectionate yet fair-minded examination of his life not only as a brilliant and unique artist, but also as a considerably flawed yet focused human being. As such, there’s both frantic editing with quirky music and appropriately lengthy shots backed by mournful scores depending on the tone of the scene.

Thus, Zappa gives devotees the full package—with an equal number of laughs and tears—and cements Winter’s place as a most excellent filmmaker. 


VIDEO: Zappa official film trailer

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Jordan Blum

Jordan Blum is an Associate Editor at PopMatters, holds an MFA in Creative Writing, and is the founder/Editor-in-Chief of The Bookends Review, an independent creative arts journal. He focuses mostly on progressive rock/metal and currently writes for—or has written for—many other publications, including Sonic Perspectives, Paste, Progression, Metal Injection, Rebel Noise, PROG, Sea of Tranquility, and Rock Society. Finally, he records his own crazy ideas under the pseudonym Neglected Spoon. When he's not focused on any of that, he teaches English courses at various colleges and spends too much time lamenting what Genesis became in the 1980s. Reach Jordan @JordanBlum87.

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