Film Review: ‘Zappa’ Captures a Maverick’s Essence

by Alexander C. Kafka

What is it about Frank Zappa’s eyes? They leer. They challenge. They invite play and fun and nonsense. But they’re also afraid. They don’t look away. They fix on you defiantly as if he’s expecting to be slapped for something naughty that he said. And he said many naughty things. 

One sees a lot of those hypnotizing eyes in the superb new documentary Zappa, directed by Alex Winter. Yes, that Alex Winter, of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, who is also the serious-minded director of documentaries on the Panama Papers and blockchain. Creating Zappa was an adventure in itself — five years in the making, with access to the artist’s archives and cooperation from the family and a slew of Zappa’s fellow musicians. It was funded through the largest crowdsourced campaign ever for a documentary. Eight-thousand backers invested $1.2 million. It’s the kind of free enterprise Zappa would have applauded.

Winter’s is a wild, often melancholy portrait of a counterculture hero who, in 1993, died from prostate cancer at age 52. It strengthens the case suggested by the 115 albums of Zappa’s music — 53 of them posthumous — that he was a multi-genre composer for whom rock stardom and guitar virtuosity were tools, not ends in themselves. He was also a visual artist, filmmaker, audio innovator, First Amendment freedom fighter, and proud entrepreneur. Zappa produced and briefly even distributed his own material. He also produced albums for Alice Cooper, the GTOs, Zappa’s high-school buddy Captain Beefheart, and other musicians, as well as an album from Lenny Bruce’s last live performance.

Zappa, a cigarette frequently in hand, was a sometimes cold, callous, calculating workaholic who reveled in road tours. In an interview, Zappa shrugs off bringing home to his wife Gail cases of the clap from romps with his groupies. His only Top 40 hit, “Valley Girl” (1983), was catalyzed by his daughter Moon’s seeking him out for a collaboration just to get a little time with her dad. 

If the road was sometimes his friend, it was also sometimes his stalker. At a 1971 concert in the Casino de Montreux in Switzerland, a flare set off by an audience member burned down the complex. (The incident inspired the song “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple.) A week later, at a gig in London, an audience member bitter about his girlfriend’s hots for Zappa, pushed him off the stage, resulting in a crushed larynx and other severe injuries that left Zappa in a wheelchair for months.

In documenting the highs and the lows, Winter makes great use of the artist’s huge vault of audio, video, and other materials. And he includes interviews with visual collaborators like album-cover artist Cal Schenkel and animator Bruce Bickford. With the help of film editor Mike J. Nichols, Winter’s approach is linear but loose, visually psychedelic, sometimes menacing, in a style that reflects and honors their subject. You might call the feel — and Zappa’s career, for that matter — goal-oriented trippiness.

Zappa shunned drug culture even as his work became associated with it. His narrative universe, unspooled in a distinctively lascivious baritone, seems crazed, but the film makes clear that it was actually the quite-logical result of a mid-century, small-town upbringing as Zappa chafed against twisted Cold War conformity and toxicity. 

Zappa, the scrawny asthmatic son of a defense worker, was like a character from one of his own songs. The film doesn’t mention it, but a doctor inserted radium into each of juvenile Zappa’s nostrils to treat persistent sinus trouble. Page the rock ‘n’ roll shrinks to examine the hallucinogenic snout-ramming sexual and pollution imagery of a groundbreaking album like Apostrophe (1974). 

The Zappas moved often — Frank attended a half dozen different high schools. In Maryland, they lived so close to the chemical-weapons plant where his dad was employed that the household had gas masks on hand in case of a manufacturing accident. 

Young Zappa liked chemistry, flames, and explosives, science-fiction movies, art, the avant-garde music of Edgar Varese, symphonic modernists like Stravinsky, but (interestingly) Puccini as well. After the family had moved to southern California, Zappa played drums in an integrated R&B group but also composed, arranged, and conducted experimental works for his school orchestra. Musically he was largely self-taught, and he maintained his ecumenical acceptance and blending of genres throughout his life, from the gleefully childish Sheik Yerbouti (1979), featuring “Dancin’ Fool,” to performances with Kent Nagano conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. 

Zappa’s music incorporates jazz, rock, pop, R&B, doowop, fusion, funk, classical, spoken word, and curated noise. “What the hell is it?” asks the Juilliard-trained percussionist Ruth Underwood, who played with one iteration of his band. She shrugs: “It’s Zappa.” Atop his stylistic stew he poured satire in bitter, joyful fits of gonzo pique. “Each show was like a composition,” says multi-instrumentalist and longtime collaborator Ian Underwood (Ruth’s former husband). 

Rail thin and commanding on stage, Zappa coupled his absurdist, puerile, sung-spoken tableaus and audience-rattling skits with tightly rehearsed instrumental frenzies that exploded into extended jams. The persona, the mood, and the sound were honed during a half-year stay with his group the Mothers of Invention at New York’s Garrick Theatre in 1967. It matured in what might be called the mid-Mothers era with the addition of Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, formerly of the Turtles, who were put to particularly fun use on the hallucinogenically rocking, mocking Just Another Band From L.A. (1972).

Instrumental projects like the standout Hot Rats (1969) showcased Zappa’s guitar chops. Some critics, like Robert Christgau, slammed Zappa’s music for being emotionally shallow. They’re right — and entirely miss the point. The emotion of concern to Zappa was freedom, and he thought of his soloing as the creation of “air sculptures.” A painting by Jackson Pollock is emotionally detached too. But it is resolutely free. And East Europeans like the thousands of Czechs who once gave Zappa an unexpected hero’s welcome at the Prague airport understood how amazing the sound of freedom can feel.

“We were loud and we were coarse and we were strange,” Zappa recalls in an interview. And if you didn’t like it, well . . .

His last recorded guitar performance was in Prague two years before he died. “Make it up,” he advises a fellow musician in the green room before going onstage. “Look, it won’t be professional. It’ll just be music.”

His final concerts were with a chamber ensemble the next year in Frankfurt. He was racked with such pain from his cancer that he could barely get through the trip. The audience gave him a 20-minute standing ovation. 

Winter includes footage of that evening and then an interviewer asking Zappa how that warm reception made him feel. 

That weird, steely little sparkle still in his eyes, Zappa replies: “There’s no accounting for taste.”