Director Alex Winter
Weasels Ripped My Flesh; Help, I’m A Rock; The Return of the Son of Monster Magnet; Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow; Sheik Yerbouti and Stinkfoot would lead you to believe that the person who came up with these song and album titles was weird, oddball and slightly unhinged.
Frank Zappa may have looked like he walked straight out of the hippy-trippy playbook, but don’t judge a book by the cover and don’t judge Zappa by the shape of his goatee and the off-kilter titles of his songs and albums.
Judge him by his prolific musical output across a range of music from rock to jazz fusion to chamber and orchestral compositions. And humour and satire in music. He was a fierce critic of American culture and politics.
Zappa describes himself as “out of step with reality, no drugs, not Republican or Democrat and reasonably sane.”
Musician Jeff Baxter (Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan) commented that, although Frank Zappa looked as if he was spaced out on drugs, he was strongly against drug use. In the documentary Zappa, Frank Zappa confirms that view.
Zappa’s vice was cigarettes; he smoked continuously, even to the point of using the neck of his guitar as a cigarette holder.
“A cigarette is food” Frank Zappa
Images © Magnolia Pictures
Alex Winter’s documentary Zappa constructs a mind map of Zappa compiled from access to Zappa’s vault of original master tapes, home made Super 8 films and all manner of paraphernalia around Zappa’a musicianship and entrepreneurship.
Zappa was an uncompromising creative producer who had little if any interest in the music industry and abhorred the fact that the industry and music marketplace measured success by the volume of units sold.
Official Trailer © Magnolia Pictures
Rather than being a rock musician who dabbled in orchestral outings, Zappa’s music originated through his interest in composers such as Edgar Varèse and Igor Stravinsky, and musical styles such as doo-wop, pop, jazz, orchestral and musique concrète.
His initial recordings were rejected by record companies which cited them as having “No commercial potential.” Zappa’s response was, “Everybody worries so much about not getting any airplay…ho hum.”
I approached Alex Winter’s documentary, Zappa, as a fan but soon realised Zappa is not a conventional doco that details Zappa’s life chronologically and highlights significant milestones.
Zappa is the film equivalent of turning Zappa’s creative landscape in his head inside-out and allowing us, the audience, the opportunity to step into and wander through Frank Zappa’s musical mindscape.
Zappa made music for himself. He composed and then produced a recording so he could listen to it at home. If others were interested, he would produce more copies to share. The makeup of his band would change depending on the requirements of the music he was creating and recording at the time.
Zappa’s creative cogs were operating day and night, non-stop, as testified by the vault of master tapes for all his recordings over his vast career. This is not a small closet but a vast repository that director Alex Winter trawled through to build this formidable picture of Zappa’s workaholic tendency, even down to the fact his daughter Moon had to slip a note under his door about a song she had written to get his attention.
When I walked out of the cinema I realised the doco had expanded my understanding of Zappa as a creative artist. I learned new things about the man behind the guitar. When a movie can reveal unknown information about someone you thought you understood, that’s exceptional film making.
Being a Zappa fan makes the contents of Zappa approachable but you don’t have to become a fan. Anyone interested in filmmaking that explores lesser known aspects of and provides insights into the roadmap of a creative brain should seek out Zappa.
Zappa, screening in selected cinemas (check your local cinema)
Missed it at the cinema? Zappa is available online:
Interview with Zappa documentary director Alex Singer on Radio National’s The Music Show with Andrew Ford (Zappa interview begins at 3 minutes)
Photo: Alex Singer
Frank Zappa’s Music
Zappa’s Music and mind boggling album cover artwork:
Click on any album and then hit the play button to sample/download Zappa’s music
Still images and Official trailer © Magnolia Pictures