Zappa

Zappa

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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Alex Winter
Ballroom Dancing
Downloaded: The SXSW Interview
SXSW Panel Reviews

Doug Freeman, March 16, 2012

More Alex Winter
Elijah Wood Plays Impossible Tunes in 'Grand Piano'
Elijah Wood Plays Impossible Tunes in 'Grand Piano'
Director Eugenio Mira and Wood on real time thrills and music lessons

Richard Whittaker, March 6, 2014

Butthole Surfers Meet John Hawkes in Super-8
Butthole Surfers Meet John Hawkes in Super-8
John Hawkes' B'Hole Surfers movie

Marc Savlov, Sept. 11, 2011

More Alex Winter Films
Downloaded
...

Jan. 25, 2021

Deep Web
...

Jan. 25, 2021

More by Raoul Hernandez
Checking in With Area Musicians Yielded 80,000 Words of Pandemic Realness
Checking in With Area Musicians Yielded 80,000 Words of Pandemic Realness
Stay TF home

Jan. 22, 2021

New Austin Music Worth Your Bandwidth This Week
New Austin Music Worth Your Bandwidth This Week
What we’re listening to

Jan. 15, 2021

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Zappa, Alex Winter

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle