It’s a sentiment that could also be applied to the Alex Winter (yes, it’s Bill of Bill & Ted fame) directed doc. It isn’t perfect, there are glaring biographical omissions, but the eye-catching collection of home movies, concert footage, animation, news reels and interviews is an intriguing look at a perfectionist whose gaze was always pointed at the future.
Although this is a mostly chronological look at Zappa’s life, we first see the musician in a preface. The year is 1991 and Zappa is playing at Sports Hall in Prague, Czechoslovakia in a celebration of the withdrawal of Russian troops from the country. During what would be his last recorded guitar performance, he tells the cheering crowd, “Please try and keep your country unique. Don’t change into something else. Keep it unique.”
The movie then spends the next two hours showing why and how Zappa kept his career unique in an industry that would have preferred him to conform.
From his early years in Baltimore, where he made Super 8 films and soaked up the music of contemporary classical composers such as Edgard Varèse to early experiments working as a composer and an arrest for making a stag tape, the film paints a portrait of a man in search of artistic freedom. Later, his exacting musicianship blazes new trails with his aptly named band The Mothers of Invention. “A lot of what we do is designed to annoy people,” he says.
Mixing rhythm and blues, rock ‘n roll and doo-wop with avant-garde sound collages and orchestral arrangements their debut album “Freak Out!” is said to be one of the inspirations for “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
The experimentation that defined his career is illustrated by rare film clips from the Zappa archives and interviews with collaborators, including assorted Mothers and Bruce Bickford, the stop motion animator who created the trippy visuals for the film “Baby Snakes.” Guitarist Steve Vai describes Zappa as “a slave to his inner ear,” always trying to recreate the complicated sounds he heard in his head.
Those increasingly complex resonances manifested themselves in orchestra pieces like “London Symphony Orchestra, Vol. I,” a self-financed project Zappa says he sunk money into simply to hear his music played properly.
Aside from never-before-seen musical performances “Zappa” details Frank’s war of words against the Parents Music Resource Council (PMRC), his stint as a trade ambassador for Czechoslovakia and his side gig as one of the first name musicians to create their own indie label Barking Pumpkin Records.
As the film winds down, recounting Zappa’s battle with prostate cancer, we see an artist running out of time to create everything he had inside. Dead at age 52, he left behind a massive catalogue of work, a testament to his restless artistic spirit.
“Zappa” does a thorough and entertaining job of examining Frank as a creative force. What remains a cypher is the man himself. Aloof, exacting and a walking contradiction—a straight edge who casually talks about cheating on his wife with groupies—like his music, he defies pigeonholes. The film doesn’t attempt to categorize him, but neither does it dig too deeply into the man behind the famous moustache. By the time the end credits roll it’s clear that “Zappa” is more a tribute to his talent than character study.