Monday, November 30, 2020
Zappa isn’t the first posthumous documentary on one of the 20th century’s greatest composers (and personalities), but it’s most certainly the best one yet.
Crowdfunded and years in the making, it’s bolstered by access to Zappa’s immense vault full of unheard audio and unseen video. Directed by Alex Winter (Bill from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the man who helmed the great cult flick Freaked), it’s a deeply felt, even heartbreaking look at the man who left us way to soon at the age of 52.
The doc begins with footage of Zappa playing his guitar, for what turned out to be the last time in public, in a celebration of the Soviets withdrawing their troops from Czechoslovakia (Zappa died in ’93). The film then goes back to the very beginning of Frank’s artistic life. Winter spends some good time on the early years, including Zappa’s home movies with his family, his obsession with composer Edgar Varese, and time spent at Studio Z, his first recording studio.
After the movie announces the formation of Frank Zappa and Mothers of Invention in ’65, it starts leaning on former band members like saxophonist Bunk Gardner, guitarists Ray White, Steve Vai and Mike Keneally, percussionist Ruth Underwood and bassist Scott Thunes to handle much of the narration. For fans, it’s just a great thing to hear all of the Zappa archival interviews interweaving with current takes from his past bands.
Nice touches include Vai recounting the complexities of “The Black Page,” followed by new footage of Underwood playing it stunningly on the piano accompanied by drummer Joe Travers. Keneally tells the story of illustrator Cal Schenkel’s album covers and, most wonderfully, the original handwritten note from daughter Moon Unit Zappa that birthed the hit single “Valley Girl.”
Early on, Winter often relies upon old monster movie footage to accompany interview audio. At first it’s a bit annoying, but as Frank reveals later in the film, he adored monster movies, so perhaps that was a creative choice Zappa himself would’ve made in telling his story. The same could be said of the often haphazard, zippy editing, which resembles the animated works Zappa directed with Claymation artist, Bruce Bickford, who we get to see making an all-new figure of Frank.
The film’s most heartwarming moment? Home video footage of Baby Moon Unit yawning, followed by Frank yawning while playing with her, all accompanied by the Firebird Suite on the soundtrack. Frank’s wife Gail (who passed away in 2015) gets some good screen time through an archival interview, while his children (Ahmet, Dweezil, Moon Unit and Diva) all appear in older footage.