2020 ended with a pair of Z’s that could just as easily be seen as the start of 2021. After Fareed Zakaria’s book, it’s Zappa, a documentary released late in 2020. Where Fareed is analyzing historical trends with an eye to our possible futures, the Zappa doc is entirely about the past. But Zappa is possibly the most inspiring film I could suggest for a creative spirit, especially musicians or composers. Its subjects are vitally important any year, let alone now in the midst of a pandemic that has disrupted artistic activity. If you’ve been looking inward, asking yourself who you are and what you should be doing, you’ll find Zappa a great way to begin the year.
We’re watching a biography full of analysis, probing the Zappa phenomenon and his creations, while exploring the cultural context. The structure is not especially original but that makes it easily intelligible, that we’re on a familiar path. We begin near the end of Frank Zappa’s short life, not in America but in Czechoslovakia, one of the places where Zappa was recognized & adored, at a kind of zenith in the early 1990s just before his untimely death in 1993 at the age of 52. We then flash back to the beginning of his life, tracking through in step by step fashion until we get to the final years.
If you want to know who Zappa really is there’s no better place to start than this film. I say start because there are numerous ways to answer that question. Some of us have been listening to his music for decades yet still haven’t decided who he really is, at least in sum because there’s so much to him. He was a composer, a guitarist, a comedian, a political satirist: often in the context of the same 3 minute song. And the way he is embraced by different groups speaks to the diversity of his output, resistant to pigeonholing.
He can come across as a comedian.
But he was a serious artist. There’s no contradiction.
I see his unmistakeable influence in some of my favorite composers. Sometimes his music resembles “pop music”, but in quotes given that he was pushing back heavily against the mainstream. He also had another life composing in a variety of styles that are recognizably modernist in their approach.
Some of the credit for the film belongs to director Alex Winter. Although you probably know him for the three Bill & Ted movies, he has fewer acting credits (28) than directing credits (37) according to IMDB.
Here’s Winter’s ambitious directorial statement, which is totally borne out by the resulting film.
It seemed striking to me and producer Glen Zipper that there had yet to be a definitive, all-access documentary on the life and times of Frank Zappa. We set out to make that film, to tell a story that is not a music doc, or a conventional biopic, but the dramatic saga of a great American artist and thinker; a film that would set out to convey the scope of Zappa’s prodigious and varied creative output, and the breadth of his extraordinary personal and political life. First and foremost, I wanted to make a very human, universal cinematic experience about an extraordinary individual. What helped make this vision possible was Gail Zappa granting us exclusive access to Zappa’s vault; a vast collection of his unreleased music, movies, incomplete projects, unseen interviews and unheard concert recordings. With this wealth of material, and the minimal addition of present-day interviews with Frank’s closest friends and musical collaborators, we built a narrative that is both intimate and epic in scope. But before we could set about making the film, we needed to preserve a great deal of material from the vault that was deteriorating and in great danger of being lost forever. So we created a crowdfunding campaign, and were lucky to break funding records for a documentary related project. And thus began an exhaustive, two year mission to preserve and archive the vault materials. When this was completed, we set about making the film. Frank Zappa was not only a creative genius, but also a great and eloquent thinker who articulated the madness of his times with extraordinary clarity and wit. A legitimate maverick who lived and worked amongst other extraordinary people in historic times. Ultimately, ZAPPA is not a retro trip into the past, but a thoroughly modern exploration of a man whose worldview, art and politics were far ahead of their time, and profoundly relevant in our challenging times.
While I’m grateful to Winter & his team of collaborators (including son Ahmet Zappa) the real lucidity on display is from the brain of Frank Zappa, a self-taught composer & musician who has a lot to teach us.
Full disclosure (and this may take a bit…): my admiration for Frank Zappa is enormous, unreasonable, bordering on a kind of madness. He appeared in my life at a time when I was very impressionable, grabbing me as firmly as any of the opera composers I came to love, and with added credibility as a critic of the very society I saw myself loathing, meaning the plastic American war machine of the 1960s. My own self-sabotaging self-critical self saw a kindred spirit in Zappa.
Nobody even attempted to do what he did.
I was blown away by my first encounter back in 1969 on a compilation album titled Mothermania, when I was young. I had loved Sergeant Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour in 1967 (and the first 45 RPM single I acquired in 1967, namely the unsurpassable Strawberry Fields / Penny Lane), yet they didn’t move me nearly so much.
My older sister (who bought Mothermania) showed it to me, amused & intrigued.
We didn’t listen the same way, of course. I was overwhelmed, trying to figure out how they did it, counting the odd time-signatures, the complex harmonies that I tried to reproduce at the piano, where I confronted bitonality (although it would be much later via Stravinsky that I would learn what to call it).
I see him as a genius, the single biggest influence on me. He defies classification. He was self-taught and for that alone is an avatar to anyone who had doubts about the value of academic study, particularly in music. I put him alongside figures such as Claude Debussy (also famous for his fights with academic conservatory thinking), Bernard Herrmann (similarly conflicted, torn between the music that made his money and the music he wanted to write) and both George Gershwin & Leonard Bernstein (both with a similar divide between a popular sound and compositions that were more palatable in the halls of classical music). While I admire the aforementioned composers a great deal, none of them except Debussy took on the additional task and hazard of articulating a critique of the cultural industry.
While there are appearances by a great many famous faces–stars flashing across the Laurel Canyon firmament such as Jean-Luc Ponty, Lenny Bruce, John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Zubin Mehta, Alice Cooper– you will be disappointed if you want a concert film, a film full of rock and roll. This is not that film.
And for that alone I am deeply thankful to Alex Winter & the team that assembled Zappa. How do you honour such a complex personality? Surely not by caving in to commercial demands, especially in the case of a composer who continuously mocked that dynamic. Exhibit A would be the parody of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band called We’re Only in it for the Money. Or right in the trailer I posted earlier, you see him suggest that when the audience screams for more, he’d have the band play a dark modern Varese piece guaranteed to clear the joint. Yes he understood music as a business and at least part of him loathed the necessity of making money.
You may be aware of the four surviving Zappa children, famous at least for the names that Gail & Frank gave them. In order they’re Moon (1967), Dweezil (1969), Ahmet (1974) and Diva (1979). Gail outlived Frank (Born Dec 21st 1940, died December 4, 1993), dying in 2015. If you google “zappa family” you’ll see pictures and various stories about the conflicts between the siblings, although I’m hopeful that this film signals reconciliation and a new co-operation.
The basement of the Zappa home in Laurel Canyon, California, is practically a character in the film. We see an enormous archive of scores & tapes that resembles that last scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. It becomes clear that you can’t believe all the legends about Zappa. The man we meet in this film is a workaholic, a perfectionist, compulsive in his pursuit of his compositions. Gail speaks of him not as a rock star but as a composer, endlessly writing, revising, creating.
You may wonder: did he use drugs or condone their use? Not according to what he has always said, including a few quotes in this film. But then again much of his adult life was split between home in Laurel Canyon with the wife & kids, notwithstanding visits from fans & groupies and the time on the road with his band: when he tells us explicitly that he screwed around. And Gail tells us how she coped (which may remind you of a certain river in Egypt). I only mention this in context with the drug question; if he lived a double life between home & the road, perhaps he indulged in more than groupies when he was away from Laurel Canyon, and was never caught nor prosecuted.
But the man was a workaholic, writing incessantly, pushing his band to levels of performance that you would never expect from a cursory look at the pictures on the album covers. The level of musicianship in his band is simply the highest I have ever experienced in anything we might want to call pop or jazz.
In live performances they (whether the original “Mothers” or later incarnations of the band with other players) work between multiple idioms within the same song, sometimes seeming to improvise, (that is, playing something that is scored in such a way as to seem improvisatory), sometimes playing very slow & cool, sometimes conducted by Zappa, especially when executing difficult rhythms in perfect unison.
But Zappa was also a composer pushing towards something modernist, a bit of a synthesis of influences including Varese, Stravinsky, and all the popular idioms he encountered as a child growing up in the 40s and ‘50s.
There are aspects of the Zappa aesthetic that will forever be mysterious. In the film he speaks of growing up in Maryland near a factory where his dad was employed manufacturing poison gases, likely a factor in his frequent use of gasmasks as a concert prop. One of the biggest differences between Zappa and Bernstein or Gershwin is in his love of grotesquerie, his embrace of freaks and his self—image as a purveyor of freak culture. In this respect he reminds me of a counter-culture version of Gustav Mahler, whose famous story from his session with Sigmund Freud, running outside to escape a traumatic fight between his parents to hear a barrel organ’s melodies, serves to explain his tormented music of ambivalence. Zappa had his own epiphany, when his studio was raided by puritanical police and he was thrown in jail. The imprinted message was a different flavor combination than that of Mahler, this one comprised of absurdly stupid authority figures imposing upon an innocent populace. I wonder if I’m projecting in calling Zappa’s genius troubled, reading ugliness implicit in brute force & arbitrary power.
While there are beautiful moments in his songs, they’re a very different sort of beauty.
This film is in some respects like a new beginning, given how many have been influenced by Zappa. While I watched that basement in Zappa’s house full of tapes & scores in respectful awe, the next step must be for someone to explore, study, catalogue and perhaps share. Just as there are libraries with old scores by JS Bach or Claude Debussy in Europe, so too with the Laurel Canyon treasure trove. In that sense it is a beginning.
Zappa tells us that he disbanded the Mothers in 1969, reminding me of another beloved ensemble of the time Blood Sweat & Tears, and Canadian David Clayton Thomas who (as I recall) explained how touring was the only way some members could make money.
Zappa said “we were going on tour so I took $400 out of the bank for money to eat, and ended up $10,000 in the hole…” One of the musicians at the time said “We didn’t even get a 2 week notice.” It was rough, one of them mentioned having just bought a car….
But the point is, as we’ve seen with opera, touring a big band is at best a shaky financial proposition.
Zappa would start his own label.
Later there was to be a London Symphony Orchestra concert of Zappa music. He was asked if the concert and/ or its recording will make money.
“No” comes his blunt reply.
“Why then do you do it?”
“Well I think any artistic decision you make on whether you’ll make any money is not really an artistic decision , it’s a business decision. And there are a lot of things I can do to earn a living. “
Letterman asks (on TV) “how do you get the London Symphony to play your stuff”?
Zappa: “you pay them”.
Zappa also said “get a real estate license if you expect to be a composer in the United States.”
Alice Cooper said “I think Frank was afraid to have a hit record. I mean he could have written hit records all day. I think he sabotaged a lot of his records. It was interesting because everyone was going for the hit record and he never did”.
Zappa also said “This is the dawning of the dark ages again. Never have the arts been in such bad shape in the United States… The business of music is all about this fake list of who sold what. The whole idea of selling large numbers of items in order to determine quality is what’s really repulsive about it”.
He never sold out. And he worked very hard.
If you can see the documentary, currently offered for example via Rogers and likely on other PPV services I recommend it with only one caution. His music is still swirling in my head.
I always figure, if you’re going to have an ear-worm, let it be brilliant.
Loved the film. I’d be hard-pressed to imagine a better job of capturing the essence and import of the artist in under two hours . . .
Agreed! thanks for sharing your thoughts.
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