Film Review: Zappa

If you talk about Frank Zappa with a group of musicians, they will all have something to say about him.  It’s likely in one way or another he’s been an influence.  Unless, like Marmite, you just hate the guy’s stuff… He is a bit Marmite and I love him; but like Marmite, Frank wouldn’t care if you love him or not.

What becomes apparent early in the recently released film Zappa is that Frank Zappa wrote compositions inspired by the classical stylings of Xenakis, Stockhausen and Varese, he was truly a composer disguised as a rock band.  Musos already know this, but it’s confirmed in the film by his bandmates and the people who were close to him.

The documentary talks about how he got his start in LA, but he never really fit in with the summer of love hippies; so it was New York that nurtured his talent and was a huge part of his formative years.  You can hear that in the music.  It’s gritty, it’s jazzy, it’s surreal at times, he was constantly pushing boundaries.  A lot of his recordings are live recordings and in this day and age where live gigs aren’t happening so much, the gig footage in this film is really a treat.  To see musicians at the top of their game playing such intricate arrangements reminds me why I miss live music so much!  That alone is worth watching this film for.

Frank Zappa always had such a warm and friendly presence on stage, but it seems that off stage he wasn’t so welcoming and a lot of his band members said they felt like they didn’t really know him, despite rehearsing every day for 4 years (even Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc).  It’s sad that someone so out there didn’t connect with his own tribe, but genius works in mysterious ways.

There is a theory that he self-sabotaged his mainstream success, having flirted with the charts he never really embraced them.  You can be listening to one of his tracks that has the coolness and swagger of Captain Beefheart, with blissful repetition in the chorus akin to Steve Reich and then he’ll abruptly stop it to make way for an angular kazoo solo.  Just when he’s on the cusp of something that sounds accessible or dare-I-say mainstream for the time, he’ll change it up in such a way that you couldn’t fathom hearing it on a radio playlist, deeming it impossible to dance to and keeping his music in the margins.  Was this self-sabotage?  Was it a choice?  Was it deeply subconscious?  Or is that just how his brain works, the spikes and sparks pouring out?

Zappa for me, brings back memories of teenage rec-rooms, spongy basement sofas, and boys… boys with their flared jeans and Converse Chuck Taylors, lava lamps and moonshine slushies.  I used to be ‘one of the guys’ – a tom boy watching Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” on repeat in the basement, playing poker with the band geeks and hanging out in suburban parking lots because there was nowhere else to go.  This film conjures up a nostalgia for little 90’s me, Brit Pop hadn’t hit Kansas yet & grunge was on the up, so we were immersing ourselves in Led Zep, Rush, Yes & Frank Zappa.

My first band (kinda – ‘cause we only had one gig) was a band called Shazod (named after our bass player).  He was obsessed with PJ Harvey and left to follow her around the East Coast like a re-incarnated dead head.  Meanwhile me and drummer Andy, got into Frank Zappa.  I was a marimba player (classically trained for 10 years) & yeah our trio was jazzy and ‘out there’ with no real vocals or lyrics to speak of, and so I idolised Ruth Underwood, the cool-girl percussionist in Frank Zappa’s band The Mothers Of Invention.  She was my hero of the avant-garde masquerading as rock n roll.  It was so great to see her in this documentary, talking candidly about her experience collaborating with Frank Zappa.  She confirmed two things: one, that he was a genius with a head for intricate arrangements and a heightened ability to compose for the strengths of the people in the ensemble that he was working with.  To be clear, this was not a limitation as they were some of the best musicians in the world, but he would deliberately write to their strengths which enabled more complexity in his arrangements.  Ruth also confirmed the reoccurring theme in the film that he was very distant and despite working closely with him for years, she never really felt she knew him that well, their connection was purely professional and musical, he was not warm or very approachable.  As a fan girl of The Mothers Of Invention it’s sad for me to hear that about Frank, but seeing Ruth Underwood in this film playing and talking about those times was amazing!  She was there; not many women were celebrated in that scene at that time – often women were marginalised and treated like groupies (they touch on this topic in the film), but she was in the centre of it and a very important part of it.

I really enjoyed the film and would recommend it to Frank Zappa fans for sure.  Music lovers will enjoy seeing him play live and hearing what he has to say in interviews from that time, with added insight from his close friends, family and bandmates.  Zappa confirms what fans already knew, that there’s more to this guy than a moustache and fuzz-driven guitar. 

Zappa is available to watch now on Altitude Film.

Review by Piney Gir

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