2020, NR, 129 min. Directed by Alex Winter.
REVIEWED By Raoul Hernandez, Fri., Nov. 27, 2020
Frank Zappa hates this film.
Classical avant-gardener, free rock fusionist, cold-blooded orchestrator, bandleading czar, tour nomad, and notorious workaholic – his sole and likely unwanted Top 40 hit “Valley Girl” began life as daughter Moon Unit’s plea/ploy to see her father – the self-ascribed Mother of Invention (1940-1993) defined both halves of “control freak” equally. In Alex Winter’s two-hour overview, associates of the guitar-wielding obsessive underline his abhorrence of outside meddling with the brand. Tampering would not be tolerated unless instigated by the aural absurdity himself.
Undertaken by the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure transcender-turned-director and documentarian, Zappa starts with a flash of World War II nerve gas, gun powder, and metallurgy in Southern California, its asthmatic protagonist “opposed to music” until a teen dalliance with French organized sound composer Edgard Varèse and awakening into domestic R&B alongside early compatriot Don Van Vliet, soon to become Captain Beefheart. Signed to Columbia Records by producer Tom Wilson (Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Velvet Underground), Zappa and his band of nonconformists splash down with 1966’s Freak Out! and We’re Only in it for the Money two years later in a typical cause célèbre of the era, their dadaist doo-wop rock strained through brass-blowing jazz and classical precepts and beyond. Another centrifugal Laurel Canyon force, the frontman brings forth all the dignitaries of the day: Bowie, Jagger, Mitchell.
“These are American experimentalists who totally reimagined the way music might be heard, might be composed,” says Kronos Quartet founder and first violinist David Harrington in guilting Zappa by association with Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Sun Ra.
Zappa chased (or rather, hounded) an untethered set of harmonics from the beginning, one engaging his sonic possession to the point of misanthropy. Indulged in the first ingredient of the sacred rock & roll credo (while abstaining from the second), he posthumously places his widow Gail Zappa in the on-camera position of having to move past marital transgressions even after she graciously licensed the juicy visuals glimpsed in the movie’s opening, wherein its subject tours a basement archive resembling the Library of Congress. None of the couple’s children – Moon Unit, Dweezil, Ahmet, Diva – appear contemporarily in this career primer on the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer whose estate remains no stranger to familial litigation.
Despite footage onstage with John Lennon and jamming “Happy Together” alongside Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, plus naturally him taking on censorship during farcical Congressional hearings in the Eighties, Zappa never adequately spotlights its raison d’être’s wit – hello, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Sheik Yerbouti, and Does Humor Belong in Music? Nor does it address his guitar acumen even though including audiences with Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Steve Vai, who became a star prodigy under the Italian hair-and-soul-patch stallion. No one breathes a word about THE HAIR, come to think of it.
“A lot of what we do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it,” reveals Zappa. “As long as they don’t feel their environment – they don’t worry about it – they’re not going to do anything to change it and something’s gotta be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it.”
A version of this review ran as part of our Sound Unseen coverage.