Zappa is certainly not the first posthumous documentary on one of the 20th century’s greatest composers and personalities—but it’s certainly the best yet.
Crowdfunded and years in the making, Zappa is bolstered by access to Frank Zappa’s immense vault, which is full of previously unreleased audio and video. Directed by Alex Winter (Bill from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the man who co-helmed the great cult flick Freaked), it’s a deeply felt and even heartbreaking look at the man who left us way too soon, in 1993 at the age of 52.
The doc begins with footage of Zappa playing his guitar for what turned out to be the last time in public, during a celebration of the Soviets withdrawing their troops from Czechoslovakia. The film then goes back to the beginning of Frank’s artistic life. Winter spends some good time on the early years, including Zappa’s home movies with his family, his obsession with composer Edgard Varese, and time spent at Studio Z, his first recording studio.
After the movie announces the formation of Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention in ’65, it starts leaning on former band members like saxophonist Bunk Gardner; guitarists Ray White, Steve Vai and Mike Keneally; percussionist Ruth Underwood; and bassist Scott Thunes to handle much of the narration. For fans, it’s great to hear all of the Zappa archival interviews interwoven with current takes from his fellow band members.
Nice touches include Vai recounting the complexities of “The Black Page,” followed by new footage of Underwood playing it stunningly on the piano, accompanied by drummer Joe Travers. Keneally tells the story of illustrator Cal Schenkel’s album covers and, most wonderfully, the original handwritten note from daughter Moon Unit Zappa that birthed the hit single “Valley Girl.”
Early on, Winter often relies upon old monster-movie footage to accompany interview audio. At first, it’s a bit annoying, but Frank himself reveals later in the film that he adored monster movies, so perhaps that was a creative choice Zappa himself would’ve made. The same can be said of the often haphazard, zippy editing, which resembles the animated works Zappa directed with Claymation artist Bruce Bickford, who makes an all-new figure of Frank.
The film’s most heartwarming moment? Home-video footage of baby Moon Unit yawning, followed by Frank yawning while playing with her, all accompanied by The Firebird Suite on the soundtrack. Frank’s wife, Gail (who passed away in 2015), gets some good screen time through an archival interview, while his children (Ahmet, Dweezil, Moon Unit and Diva) all appear in older footage.
Any Zappa fan will note that no two-hour film could possibly cover the massive musical history this man created. Alas, a large chunk of his amazing ’70s and ’80s output is relegated to just a few mentions. That’s not a shortcoming; it’s by necessity. A truly comprehensive musical documentary on Zappa would require a miniseries like The Beatles Anthology. (Can somebody make this, please?)
Zappa is a look at his life as well as his music, and the fact that it spends significant time on his final projects—The Yellow Shark and his work with the Ensemble Modern—shows great respect to the artist. Zappa’s “Watermelon in Easter Hay,” one of his most melodic, beautiful guitar compositions, plays over the closing credits—and the movie couldn’t have a more fitting end.
Zappa is available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.