If all you know of Frank Zappa is his 1982 hit “Valley Girl” – and I confess not knowing a whole lot about his music beyond that – the documentary Zappa will be eye-opening. If, on the other hand, you're a Zappa devotee, the rare footage accessed by director Alex Winter (yes, the Alex Winter from the Bill & Ted movies) will practically have you salivating. More than just a standard biography, the movie paints a portrait of its subject as both a figure of immense creativity and as a family man.
Early scenes show what we'd expect – a little bit of Zappa's childhood, segueing to his entry into the music business, specifically his early days with band the Mothers of Invention. We learn that he was obsessively creative, yet also a perfectionist who demanded the absolute best from his fellow musical pranksters. That they could never achieve the level he desired is one of the idiosyncrasies that made him enigmatic. Even those closest to him never felt like they were truly on the inside, given his intense focus on whatever project he had going on at the time.
The back half of Zappa shows how he transitioned into an elder statesman. During the '90s, when the PMRC began demanding warning labels be placed on albums with profanity in their lyrics, he cut his hair, put on a suit, and testified before Congress. Zappa was shrewd enough to know that he had to look the part to win over his conservative opponents, so he adjusted his image as he fought for unbridled artistic integrity. That was, in many ways, representative of his career. Subverting the system appealed to him, and he was good at it.
Of course, there's a section on “Valley Girl” and how ironic it was that this particular song turned out to be his only mainstream hit. The duet with daughter Moon Unit came about because she complained he wasn't spending enough time with her. Zappa's wife and kids were important to him, although they had to complete with his creative drive. Winter relates all these events with archival footage (some never-before-seen) and, obviously, plenty of the man's songs. What we come away with is that Frank Zappa was 1.) more a composer than a traditional rock musician; and 2.) a fountain of ideas who needed to bring as many of them to fruition as possible in order to keep his brain from overloading.
That second bit is, to me, what makes Zappa so special. Winter gives the movie a wild, frenzied (but still very coherent) pace that replicates the speed with which its central figure's mind worked. Music was not disposable to Frank Zappa. It was vital and life-affirming. The film appreciates and celebrates that viewpoint. By the end, we feel like we fully understand the mixture of playfulness and rebellion that infused his entire career. Zappa's music sounded like no one else's for a good reason – nobody else thought the same eccentric way he did. That quality made him unique, inspiring fellow musicians and fans alike, even years after his passing.
Zappa is a mesmerizing look at one of the most inventive musicians the world has ever known.
out of four
Zappa is unrated but contains adult language and some sex/drug content. The running time is 2 hours and 9 minutes.