Friday, February 12, 2021

Strictly Conventional: Alex Winter's Disappointing New Zappa Documentary

Frank Zappa. (Photo: Roelof Kiers/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

I have been listening to a lot of Frank Zappa's music of late, everything from The MOFO Project/Object: The Making of Freakout! (2006), a double-CD documentary look at his first (1966) album (with The Mothers of Invention) to Make a Jazz Noise Here (1993), highlighting his 1988 band – one of the final discs to come out during his lifetime – the last group he toured with before he was diagnosed with cancer. (He passed away in 1993 at age 52). Most recently, I purchased and thoroughly enjoyed the posthumously released Halloween 81 highlights CD (2020), featuring Zappa at, perhaps, his live best. (The 6-CD box set of three 1981 New York concerts is too pricey, however.) So, being immersed in this genius's oeuvre, I was quite psyched to see Zappa (2020) the latest documentary on the man.

Alex Winter's is actually the second documentary about Frank Zappa to reach our screens in the last five years. But whereas German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte's Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016) was an effective, compelling look inside the world of Zappa, filtered solely through interviews given by Zappa himself, news accounts on him, and various of his musical performances around the world, Winter's Zappa is a more conventional affair that, at best, offers a glancing and superficial view of why Zappa mattered.

Zappa begins in 1991, with Frank Zappa's appearance in post-communist Czechoslovakia, extending his good wishes and hoping the country stays “unique.” Then come news reports of his death two years later, before Winter goes back to the beginning of his career and follows his life trajectory forward. The film's chronological approach isn't necessarily the problem, though it's less imaginative than the way Schütte structured his Zappa movie, eschewing narration that would have packaged the movie into an explainable whole. It's more that Winter doesn't know how to bring Frank Zappa to life in a satisfying way. I've delved widely into Zappa's music: I own virtually all of the 62 albums released during his life and most of the 50-plus CDs (some of which are box sets) put out since his demise. (Outside of The Grateful Dead, there is more live Zappa music extant than that of anyone else I can think of.) I've also read the incisive and smartly written Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa by the late Kevin Courrier, my friend and co-founder, with the late David Churchill, of the site you're reading now. That book was also laid out chronologically, but Kevin never deviated from his savvy analysis of Zappa's music and how it evolved and changed over the years. I saw Eat That Question with Kevin, who, not incidentally, turned me on to the length and breadth of this artist, and he pronounced himself satisfied with the cinematic result. In that light, Zappa would have to have offered up something novel or gone deeper into his music for it to stand out in my estimation. Regrettably, and despite Winter's obvious love of all things Frank, his film fails to do that. 

According to the filmmaker, Zappa offers up much footage, including home movies shot in Zappa's youth, that have previously never seen the light of day. I don't dispute that fact but mostly the film just muses on and samples Zappa's wares, so to speak. A few bits about his brief career as a commercial artist, complete with sardonic Zappa greeting cards, a photo of The Blackouts, Zappa's first (gutsily interracial) band, views of the Sunset Strip in L.A., the backdrop to the beginning of Zappa's musical career and debut album: none of this cuts deep nor builds to anything memorable. It's as if Winter (best known for playing opposite Keanu Reeves in the Bill & Ted movies), who spent years assembling this movie, is so intent on visiting every facet of and unearthing every corner of Frank's life that he forgot to craft a strong narrative arc. Zappa just goes from A to B until it reaches its sad conclusion of a brilliant life cut, tragically, short. I haven't revisited Eat That Question since I first saw it, but I recall a greater emphasis on actual footage of Frank Zappa's music. Other than the touching, fairly lengthy clip of him conducting the Ensemble Modern in 1992 in Frankfurt, Germany, his final public appearance, and a concert that became The Yellow Shark (1993), the last album released before his death, there's not much music on tap in this documentary or, at least, not enough of it to turn a newcomer onto Zappa's varied and highly diverse output. 

A scene from Alex Winter's Zappa.

Winter also disappoints with many of the interviews included in the film, only some of which add much to an understanding of Frank Zappa's raison d'être. Neither “Bunk” Gardner, who played in the first incarnation of The Mothers of Invention, nor Mike Keneally, who played briefly in Zappa's last band –  the 1988 tour was cut short because of Zappa's illness – are all that interesting. To be fair, they've never struck me as the most important members of Zappa's groups over the years, even though they have a bit to say about their boss's strict work ethic and coldness towards his fellow musicians. That latter trait is attributed here to his zealous preoccupation with making music rather than to his being an asshole, though he could be that too. Even the interview footage with Gail Zappa, his widow (who died in 2015), is pallid, even forgettable, other than her comments about having had to endure her husband's predilection for and involvement with groupies. You sense her underlying anger at her mate for betraying her like that but she seems to be tamping down her real feelings. That's understandable, perhaps, as she was the preserver of her husband's work, even though on his deathbed he advised her to get out of the music business after he was gone. (The footage of Frank in an interview justifying his behaviour and pointing out that Gail is his wife so he can, essentially do what he wants in this regard, is typical sexist boorishness. Pamela Des Barres, a self-professed rock and roll groupie, who was also a member of the Zappa produced band The GTO's, alludes to this sordid reality in the film.)

The best interviews in Zappa are conducted with Ruth Underwood, who performed with The Mothers of Invention from 1972-77, and appeared on some 20 of his albums. and Steve Vai, who played with him from 1980 to 1983. Underwood breaks down when telling the story of the letter she wrote him, at the end of his life, attesting to his profound influence on her. It's a very moving testament to a mentor who likely didn't realize, until she told him, how much of an effect he had on this musician, stifled at Juilliard, who would never have had as interesting or satisfying a career had she not met him. Vai's take on the unique technical aspect of Zappa's playing is about the only real insight we get into that process, unless you count the film's retelling of Zappa’s attraction to the avant-garde music of French composer Edgard Varèse when he read a review that called the composer's music “ugly,” an instant sign of street cred for Zappa. (Varèse's line "The present day composer refuses to die!" adorns many of Zappa's CDs.) But the charming anecdote of how Zappa, on the occasion of his 15th birthday, convinced his parents to let him make a costly long-distance call from California to Varèse in New York (only to find out he was in Brussels at the time) isn't mentioned in the film. Why? And if you don't know anything about Frank Zappa's other key influences, you won’t find out who they are from this movie, as there's nary a mention of Stravinsky, Bartok, or Webern. The movie does reference his love of R & B and doo-wop music; if there was anyone who could and did dissolve the often-self-imposed boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, it was Frank Zappa.

I couldn't help noticing what and who else is missing from Winter's largely slapdash movie, starting with the interviews. Where is Ike Willis, who not only was involved as a sideman with Zappa for most of a decade (1978-88) but, who since his passing, has kept his flame alive as a member of Project/Object, a Zappa tribute band which gave a stellar three-hour show that I was lucky enough to catch in Toronto? Easier to answer, since Zappa's son Ahmet is one of the producers of the film, is the absence of Dweezil Zappa from the film. The two brothers had a bitter falling-out, only recently patched up, over, among other contentious issues, Dweezil's right to use the Zappa moniker in his Zappa Plays Zappa shows, three of which I saw with Kevin. But as the sole child of Frank's who is honouring his father by playing his music superbly, most recently in a 50th-anniversary tribute show recreating Hot Rats (1969), one of Zappa's seminal albums, Dweezil's observations on his dad would seem to be vital to include in the movie. (I had tickets for the Hot Rats show in March 2020 but it was cancelled because of the pandemic and has not yet been rescheduled.) The fact that Moon Unit, Frank's daughter, who sided with Dweezil against Ahmet and her sister Diva, also doesn't appear here is also unfortunate since she sang with Frank on the hit song “Valley Girl” on the 1982 Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch album, and her take on it and that collaboration would have been invaluable, too.

And what about Joe Travers? He's glimpsed performing Zappa's sublime composition “The Black Page” with Underwood, a bonus track included on the 40th-anniversary Zappa in New York box set (2018). But as the vaultmeister who's been unearthing all of Zappa's posthumous material, stored in his archives, and writing most of the liner notes for the resulting CDs, shouldn't he have been given the opportunity to weigh in on what's become his life's work?

Photo: Dan Carlson/Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

I suspect that because Alex Winter is essentially a rabid fan of Zappa more than a music maven, he wasn’t in the position to create a smarter movie on this most complex of artists. But even when he sticks to (fascinating) historical facts, there are weird omissions and/or faulty emphases. He reports that the Czech authorities, during the repressive Communist era, merely told Zappa fans not to listen to his challenging – in both the political and the artistic sense – output. That's an oddly benign way of casting it, since Czechs went to jail and were beaten for listening to his music. One man shook Zappa to his core by revealing that his jailer claimed he'd beaten the Zappa out of him, a confession that, ironically, made him reappraise his own country, which he’d assailed so often and trenchantly in his work. In the U.S,. Zappa noted, the worst thing his music faced, after all, was censorship. And why was Zappa forced out of his proposed role as cultural ambassador to Czechoslovakia, an invitation made by Czech president Vaclav Havel? Winter’s film claims it had to do with U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, who was peeved by Zappa's broad attacks on his wife, one of the founders of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The PMRC was a group of Washington women, including Baker's wife Susan and Al Gore’s wife Tipper, who wanted to slap records with warning labels, alerting buyers to their sexual, profane or violent content, which Zappa saw as censorship and testified so at hearings in Washington into “rock porn." But wasn't Zappa's calling Vice-President Dan Quayle stupid also a factor in his ouster? The movie omits that anecdote but it has to have been germane to the senior Bush administration's thinking, too. Notably, Zappa, who likely flew under the radar of the PRMC, wasn't even the direct target of that group's wrath, though labelling discs would have affected him, too. But such was his lifelong abhorrence of censorship that morally he felt compelled to go to Washington to testify, also knowing full well that other artists like Prince and Sheena Easton, who had been assailed by the PRMC, weren't courageous enough to show up to defend their music. 

There are a few gems here, like the glimpse into how Frank sabotaged his skits when he appeared as a guest host on Saturday Night Live in 1978, largely out of dissatisfaction with the way skits were rewritten until just before airtime, a process which he felt disadvantaged the show's non-actor guests – and, in fact, with the skits themselves, which he felt put words into his mouth which weren't really representative of him. So it's illuminating to watch his deliberately bad acting in an embarrassing sketch where Aykroyd, Belushi and company show incredulity that he's not the druggie he looks like. (Zappa was vehemently anti-drug and would fire band members who came to work stoned.) Really, that's the best material the show's writers could come up with? Zappa was banned from SNL after that appearance, a snub I'm sure he could live with. Incidentally, he could act, as fans of his onstage antics could see and hear in his myriad live shows.

It was also nice to see Cal Schenkel featured in the film. He designed many of Zappa's finest album covers, including the justly famed one for We’re Only in It for the Money (1968), the smart pastiche of The Beatles' 1967 album Sgt, Pepper's; Lonely Hearts Club Band. (But I could have done with a lot less of Bruce Bickford's annoying clay animation, which featured in such Zappa films as Baby Snakes from 1979 and The Dub Room Special from 1982.

Ultimately, Zappa fails at its core conceit and goal: showing and explaining why Frank Zappa was such a unique, indelible talent. (The 2019 doc Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool also flubbed the chance to showcase a musical genius.). Frank deserves better. 

– Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. Pre-pandemic, he taught film at Toronto's Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, Ryerson University's LIFE Institute, and at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. During the pandemic, he is adjusting to doing some of this teaching on Zoom.








1 comment:

  1. This is a comment I left on a video about the film in question. I think it is relevant here as well.
    When the Zappa family gave Barry Miles permission to write his biography of Frank, they apparently expected the usual, flattering hagiography. The bio, however, while expressing its author's biases against Frank's concepts of worker/employer relations, also revealed several most UNflattering facts about Zappa. I think Gail and the kids decided that that wasn't going to happen again. Thus, we have Alex Winter's film, which glosses over many bad things about FZ's personality and history, as well as skipping his unfortunate adventures with the Synclavier. I guess it can be argued that a film such as this can't be expected to cover every detail of a man's life, but just a wee bit of exposure of Zappa's hypocrisy and hateful side would have been nice. Knowing that Zappa did bad things (like keeping a woman he was having an affair with live in the basement of his family's home or cheating Bruce Bickford out of most of his life's work) doesn't lessen my appreciation for his work or my admiration for the man himself; it just makes my understanding of him greater.