Frank Zappa, the man, the myth, the legend, the musician, director and who knows what else. He’s brought to life in this two-hour love-affair documentary by Alex Winter, he of Bill & Ted fame.
I was coming to the documentary as someone who doesn’t know an awful lot about Zappa. I knew he was a musician, I knew he was known for being quirky and making lengthy records and I knew he famously named his daughter Moon Unit Zappa. Otherwise, I was fairly in the dark.
Zappa was a product of the sixties and seventies, though said he’d never done, nor advocated, drugs, but the whole long-hair, flares, bright clothing thing was him all over. Although again he said he wasn’t a hippy, and claimed hippie’s didn’t get what he did.
Zappa was interested in chemistry whilst at school, his father working at a munitions factory helped, but later got into filmmaking before music.
He originally played in a mix-raced blues band, which didn’t exactly please the locals, and weirdly went from there to buying up the debts and owning a local-ish music studio where he also lived.
Eventually he put together his own band, Mothers of Invention, and began making his own music which, I think it’s fair to say, and I think he’d be more than happy with, isn’t for everyone.
One person described how, whilst on stage, they played a 20 minute song which by the half-way point, everyone was too tired from dancing to carry on.
Frank can also be heard to say, “that’s an unprecedented response to the bullshit we do”, at one gig.
The band, and Frank’s music, only really took off when he moved to New York and began putting on performances at the Garrick Theatre. Frank always said he gave performances, rather than just standing in front of an audience playing music.
Winter has put together this, rather epically long, documentary from the vast, and I mean vast, catalogue of film and music that Frank kept in his home. It’s like a film archive for a movie studio, it’s unreal.
Winter cuts it all together in this strange and jumpy way, mixing visuals, overlapping scenes and jumping around, all with snippets of Frank’s music.
This takes some getting used to if I’m honest, I found it a tad disconcerting. Though it reminded me of another Frank documentary, Being Frank. In fact, in some weird ways, Zappa and Chris Sievey had more in common than I would have ever imagined.
Both were ahead of their time, both loved making movies, artwork, doing things their way and being in complete and utter control. It’s this latter point that is mentioned a lot throughout Zappa, that he was a total control freak.
Even towards the end, when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he kept working, claiming it only allowed him to do 9.30 to 18:30 each day.
The documentary covers a lot, from Frank becoming an ambassador to the Czech Republic, his final guitar show and his hit single Valley Girl with his daughter Moon.
Those hoping to hear more about Frank from a musical point of view, perhaps about the legendary guitarist he apparently was, or see more of him in concert, will likely be disappointed.
Whatever you are expecting, Zappa tried his best to deliver the opposite. Winter meanwhile delivers the goods, but some editing of the run time would not have gone amiss.