As someone who was in elementary school when rock legend Frank Zappa died in 1993, I never had much of an awareness of the musician, a multi-talented composer, songwriter, band leader and artist. Thankfully, Alex Winter’s sweeping new documentary on Zappa’s life, work and politics is a comprehensive and insightful film that will thrill fans and educate the uninitiated (myself included). It’s not easy for a documentary more than two hours long to justify that extended runtime, but a complicated and complex subject like Zappa more than makes the case; though jam-packed with stories, history lessons and legends about the artist, the film never feels overstuffed or over-long. And thanks to both a wealth of taped interviews while Zappa was alive and access to a prolific library of his compositions and creations, Winter relies heavily on Zappa’s own work and words to tell the story of a man who tried desperately throughout his life to be more than anyone would expect him to be.
Born in Baltimore in 1940, early home movies show Zappa’s flair for the dramatic from an early age, convincing his brother and sister to dress up in costumes and torment their Italian mother while she tried to make dinner. Though there’s plenty of work to reference during Zappa’s decade-long run with the Mothers of Invention and his solo career, Winter introduces us to a kid from a close family whose artistic talent is an intrinsic part of his existence and essential to forming his perspective on the world. The filmmaker also makes the strong case that Zappa, despite his public persona as a ’70s rock god with long hair and innovative sonic styling, was as much a thinker, philosopher, change-maker and adversary to the system as anything else. Founded in 1964 just as bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were taking over the rock airwaves, the Mothers, led by Zappa’s uncompromisingly original vision, proved to be an alt-mainstream act that quietly influenced those more popular acts, artists looking to purists like Zappa for inspiration.
Winter fills the documentary with archival footage and images of Zappa’s life and media appearances and takes a mostly chronological approach to recounting it all. Moments of the musician’s creative inspiration are balanced with stories of his personal life; the story of how he met wife Gail through friends is one for the ages, the two just sort of falling into bed together in the late ’60s. They stayed married until his death at the age of 52, welcoming four children along the way. This family-man persona doesn’t always jive with his rockstar lifestyle, and Zappa makes no bones about the realities of love on the road. Suffice it to say, Gail must be some kind of saint to deal with the emotional baggage (and STDs) Zappa brought back from tour with him. In her interviews for the film, she recounts moments in their life together as if they happened yesterday, and perhaps when you spend decades with someone, it does all go by in a flash.
The most fascinating moments in Zappa are when Winter lets the subject speak for himself; over the course of the film, he evolves from a cocky musician who knows he’s deeply talented to a successful performing artist who knows he has a platform for influence. In his later years, Zappa’s interest in politics saw him testifying before Congress and even considering a run for president. His nonchalance about the office is matched only by his unchecked confidence; the guy truly believed he could go up against the Bushes and Carters of the world. In his earlier years, he talks about his processes for writing and recording music, that he records everything to know what he’s produced, and that he’s always in search of a composition that impresses him (whether anyone else enjoys it, he says, is besides the point). By the time he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1990, Zappa is in a place of reflection, with a massive library of music to his name and a laundry list of extraordinary experiences over a lifetime on stage. Zappa does an exemplary job of capturing the many, many sides of a polymath like him, and serves as a touching tribute to an artist who only ever strived for perfection.
Zappa is now playing via Music Box Theatre’s virtual cinema. A portion of your rental goes to support the theater while it’s closed.
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