VOD film review: Zappa
James R | On 20, Feb 2021
Director: Alex Winter
Cast: Frank Zappa, Gail Zappa, Mike Keneally, Ian Underwood, Steve Vai
Watch Zappa online in the UK: BBC iPlayer / Altitude.Film / Apple TV (iTunes) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store
From digital currency study Trust Machine and dark web exploration Deep Web to Napster doc Downloaded, Bill & Ted star Alex Winter has carved out a fascinating corner of modern cinema out for himself – a place where technology is picked apart with intensity, clarity and passion. His latest non-fiction offering, Frank Zappa, might seem like a left turn, but the rock outsider is a natural fit for the director – an eccentric figure who was also interested in pushing boundaries and inspires an immersive passion from fans.
Winter takes us back to Frank’s early days and traces his eccentricities all through his life and career, including his fondness for goofy horror movies, which he attempted to replicate as a child. With unfettered access to the Zappa family trust and archival footage, Winter’s forensically intimate approach means that this portrait of a misunderstood artist strips away any myths and preconceptions and shows us the man through his own eyes – a serious and ambitious musician who just so happened to end up a rock star.
Frank’s musical inspiration is tied to his discover of Edgard Varèse as a young age, which led to him developing his own modern classical style that was at odds with the commercial music industry – and that love-hate relationship with pop music, expectations and specifically convention makes for a fascinating study of a singular talent. Contributions from collaborators make it clear that he wasn’t necessarily a warm or affectionate man. Footage of Frank’s widow Gail Zappa also highlight how, although he was a family man, the groupie-surrounded musician was far from a perfect husband.
But there’s no doubt of the seriousness with which the film regards Zappa’s abilities and contributions to the music of the 1970s and 1980s. He was an exacting creative, with percussionist Ruth Underwood notably standing out as she recalls how she sparked controversy trying to play a track on a piano at Juilliard. Absurd, daring, detached and deliberate, the difficulty of pinning him down as any one thing reflects his pop, rock, jazz and classical-infused legacy – it’s no surprise that this superbly assembled and lovingly detailed documentary begins with his 1991 concert appearance in Prague, celebrating the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the Czech Republic. Theres a freedom at the centre of his sound, a nonconformity that doesn’t seem out of place in Winter’s growing mapping of experimental frontiers.
Zappa is available on BBC iPlayer until 5th January 2021