Joke or genius? Zappa doco doesn’t quite pierce the veil
If there is one American musician who was overdue for a comprehensive documentary, that’s Zappa — and this one doesn’t disappoint. It’s as messy as his music in parts, but that fits. It lacks an overall thesis, but that’s neither compulsory nor even useful with Frank: his creative energy seemed inexhaustible.
Director Alex Winter (yes, that guy from Bill and Ted) ranges all over the map, with apparently free access to the archives: film, animation, sheet music, home movies, never-released home recordings, and of course, interviews with Frank and family and some of his most important collaborators.
Among rock musicians, Zappa was unique: no-one else was this prolific for so long, and without the use of hard drugs, and no-one else was as political, nor as smart and funny. Yes, he could be like a naughty school boy, but he fought like a wounded bear when Washington moved to impose censorship on albums. His interviews could be golden and not just oppositional, unlike so many of his cranky contemporaries. He liked debate.
What the film doesn’t do is penetrate his emotional coldness, nor really evaluate his music. Some critics called him a joke; others said he was a visionary. Winter settles for “he was great because he was his own man”. If Zubin Mehta and the Kronos Quartet and John Lennon thought he was great, then he was great. Some of the hundreds who went through the Mothers of Invention thought he was great, too, until he sacked them; others continued to love him despite that.
A few things become clearer: he was precociously gifted, teaching himself to compose, arrange and notate at high school. He was a prodigious guitar player. His range of composition was extraordinary, from experimental rock to jazz fusion to classical. Winter doesn’t ask how much of it will be played in a hundred years. He just assumes it will be, because Frank was great. He may be right.
He was also complex, driven, opaque and somewhat aloof. We’re left to guess at the origins of that remoteness, but that may be the price of getting access to the archive. One of the producers is his son, Ahmet, and there is always a toll to pay for an authorised biography.