Music to My Ears

Frank Zappa – The King of Freaky’s New Movie

Issue 123

A new documentary named Zappa will be released by Magnolia Pictures on November 27, 2020. I was incredibly fortunate to be a sent a screener for the movie in the hope I would write a review for Copper. How cool is that? I love this job!

Produced by Alex Winter and Glen Zipper, directed by Alex Winter with producing credit also going to Ahmet Zappa, this film will delight the Zappaphiles out there. Here are some thoughts without revealing too many of the movie’s secrets.

Let me first relate that there is no narrator, and no interviews with friends, neighbors, experts, or critics. Most of the narrative is interviews with Zappa himself, which are cleverly woven into the narration so you are listening to Zappa on Zappa. There are also many interviews with bandmates, wife Gail Zappa, plus Laurel Canyon “roommate” Pamela Zarubica – the original Suzy Creamcheese of early Mothers of Invention fame – and cover artist extraordinaire Cal Schenkel. Think album art like Burnt Weeny Sandwich and One Size Fits All.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

While watching I kept a detailed and vid-chronological list of who was being interviewed but I am going to put that list into the “secrets” category. I know you will be thrilled.

Suffice it to say that you will love Gail Zappa and Ruth Underwood, one of Zappa’s most important and accomplished musicians, who played mallet and other percussion and synthesizer. Insightful and intriguing anecdotes. The story of Zappa’s first meeting with stop-action artist Bruce Bickford and the extensive showing of a lot of those vids in the film and how they were made are worth the price of a ticket just by themselves.

After a video of the beginning of his last recorded guitar performance in Prague in 1991, the story begins with Frank talking about his childhood, growing up near a mustard gas plant in Maryland where his dad worked, and the subsequent move to California, with his struggles growing up in a small town. Frank’s talking through the interviews about this time in his life is punctuated with 8mm home videos Zappa filmed himself.

Frank Zappa performing with the Mothers of Invention. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, photo by Cal Schenkel.

Zappa kept all those videos and in fact had a large vault in his Laurel Canyon home with thousands of video and audio tapes from studio and concert recordings. Director Alex Winter had access to everything, and the result is a highly informative and purely fun romp through Zappa’s life with plenty of stills and films. Zappa was a dedicated pack rat, thank the good Lord.

I should point out that you should not expect extensive concert or music footage except in small snippets that support the narrative.  For instance, Zappa talks to the Prague audience in 1991 and the video is cut off as he turns to tune his guitar. Gotta look dat s**t up. This filmmaking method does make you want to look for concert footage and audio, but these are amply available.  This documentary is more a story about Zappa’s life and the creation of his music. Despite the amount of research I’ve done on this guy over the years I encountered some facts brought forth by the film that I didn’t know before, which I will not reveal because that’s not nice and I would risk exposing my ignorance.

Kerry McNabb and Zappa at the mixing console. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, photo by Yoram Kahana.

You will want to see this movie in the theater because of the visual spectacle. I will go see this in a theater just to see the beautifully-done editing on a big screen. But we all will have to buy the movie when it comes out. (It will be available on demand and on various digital platforms and on Blu-ray and DVD next spring.) This is beyond shameless commerce. On your first watching it in a theater you will repeatedly wish you could rewind. So, you will wind up watching it multiple times or three reasons. You can watch as much as you want, you can drag your on-the-fence friends to your home and indoctrinate them into Zap lore, and I guarantee you will want to watch this film multiple times.

Have fun. In fact, when the rokdoc comes out give me shout and we’ll go together. It will be a hoot.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures, photo by Dan Carlson.

Header image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Roelof Kiers.

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