If you grew up with Frank Zappa, and he loomed large in your youth-cultural pop rebel sandbox (as he did in mine), he seemed to be many things at once. The outrageous hippie with the thick black T-shaped goatee who looked weird and threatening enough to represent something very far removed from peace and love. The avant rock ‘n’ roll absurdist who led the band of wilted flower children known as the Mothers of Invention. The scandalous joker seated half-naked on a toilet seat in the iconic ’60s poster that read “Phi Zappa Krappa.” The airy and sophisticated pop-rock-jazz prodigy who, starting around the time of “Hot Rats” (1969), began to put together songs that had the intricate quality of hypnotic musical Tinkertoy. The band leader who whipped his musicians into learning those how-many-notes-can-I-jam-into-three-seconds tracks with the bop-till-you-drop discipline of a counterculture Duke Ellington. The tall skinny long-haired guitar god who stood bare-chested onstage whipping off licks that could rival those of Jimmy Page or Brian May.
Not to mention the trenchantly funny and low-down proto-Howard Stern social commentator. The straight-edge family man who lived in Laurel Canyon with his wife and kids. And, lingering in the background, the modernist orchestral composer who worshipped Edgard Varèse and claimed to treat the entire occupation of rock star as if it were his day job.
“Zappa,” Alex Winter’s haunting documentary about Frank Zappa (it will play in theaters tonight and then drop on streaming services this Friday), is a movie that plunges into the Zappa legend and touches, one way or another, on just about every aspect of his life and career. It’s a multimedia immersion, filled with rare footage of Zappa from his teenage years on and assembled with the loving dexterity we’ve come to expect from Alex Winter as a filmmaker. When Winter takes on a subject like this one, he doesn’t just explore it; he surrounds and penetrates it. Yet what surprised me about “Zappa” — it’s the source of its emotional power — is that the movie insists on seeing Frank Zappa not from the outside but, rather, in the way that he saw himself: as a deadly serious and obsessive aesthete-musician in freak’s clothing, a man consumed by breaking out of what he viewed as the shackling boundaries of the pop-music business.
At one point in the film, Alice Cooper, who Zappa signed to his first record deal, says, “I really think Frank was afraid to have a hit record. Because I think Frank could have written hit records all day.” Anyone who’s a Zappa fan would probably agree with that. Because Zappa could be extraordinarily catchy when he wanted to — just listen to the fluttery winding beauty of “Oh No,” the percolating carnival cascade of “Peaches en Regalia,” the grand syncopated locomotive chug of “Pygmy Twylyte,” the raw majesty of “Muffin Man.” Zappa was a rock star by design, because you can’t be one unless you choose to be. Yet he loathed the radio-based machinery of the rock marketplace, and he set out to subvert it with almost every album he made. He was a creature of contradiction — a man who despised the music business and often existed on the fringes of it, yet for that reason made himself into as ardent a businessman as anyone in pop. (He also hated drugs, and was proud of not doing them, but smoked like a chimney.)
Zappa’s greatest contradiction is that he sought a purity of connection with his audience, yet when he thought about “the audience” (i.e., the people out there he was supposed to be pleasing), his instinct was to figure out a way to spit in their eye. Winter traces that love-hate quality back to the moment when Zappa discovered Edgard Varèse, the French-born 20th-century composer who created churning cacophonies of sound. Zappa first heard about him when he read a tribute to Sam Goody’s marketing savvy that praised the record-store maven by saying that he could even sell a record by Edgard Varèse. That was catnip to Zappa, who fell in love with Varèse’s in-your-face atonality.
At the same time, the teenage Zappa, growing up in the white-bread ’50s town of Lancaster, Ca., became consumed by rhythm & blues (Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Elmore James, Johnny “Guitar” Watson), to the point that he taught himself to play it all on the guitar. Zappa was formed by a very 1950s conformist-vs.-outsider mindset. In 1956, he put together a band called the Blackouts that got in trouble for being a mixed-race ensemble. But Zappa, who was already immersed in composing serious orchestral music, didn’t actually pen a rock ‘n’ roll song until the 1960s.
His band, the Mothers of Invention, released their debut album, “Freak Out!,” in 1966, and for a while they were a lark, a kind of music comedy troupe, the first rock band with horns (presaging Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago), and a scruffy counterculture vehicle for Zappa’s fledgling ambitions as a composer. Winter interviews a number of the musicians who worked with Zappa over the decades, like Bunk Gardner (the Mother who looked like a silver-haired leonine sheik), and they talk about what a stern taskmaster he was, how he would keep them at arm’s length even as he had them rehearse for 8 to 10 hours at a time. The most penetrating comments come from Ruth Underwood, the brilliant percussionist and marimba player who was studying to be a classical musician at Juilliard when she caught one of the Mothers’ shows in New York. She became possessed.
Underwood tells a great story about going back to Juilliard and trying to play “Oh No” on one of the practice-room pianos (a security officer kicked her out). “If you were to hear that piece on a piano,” she says, “it could live in a concert hall. But you couldn’t really categorize it. You couldn’t say ‘Oh, yeah, that’s rock ‘n’ roll,’ because it wasn’t. ‘It’s jazz!’ No, it really wasn’t. ‘It’s pop music!’ No, not at all. ‘Well, what the hell is it?’ It’s Zappa.” That’s as perfect a description as I’ve heard. There was nothing else like Zappa’s throwaway virtuosity. He created his own category of seductive polyrhythmic trance, with goofball lyrics out of a head comic book that you almost stripped away as you listened to them. His songs took up residence in your head.
Zappa died in 1993, at 52, after a four-year battle with prostate cancer, and “Zappa” kicks off with the last concert appearance in which he ever played the guitar — in 1991, at the Sports Hall in Prague, where he came to share the celebration of the withdrawal of Soviet troops from the Czech Republic. He was greeted like a messiah, because Zappa’s music, to many Czechs, was the incarnation of freedom. The documentary then shows us a TV clip of Zappa giving a tour of the vault at home where he kept his life’s work. It looks like a CIA bunker, with aisles of recordings stacked floor to ceiling (master tapes, the recording of the time Eric Clapton came over to his house, the home horror movies he made in the mid-’50s with his father’s 8mm camera). Zappa released 62 albums during his lifetime (53 more albums of his material have been released since his death), and they’re a testament to his identity as both artist and workaholic.
Gail Zappa, who married him and raised their four children when Frank was on the road (she died in 2015), speaks candidly, if devotedly, about what life with Frank was really like. He was a loving husband, but no picnic. There’s a clip of Zappa from the ’70s talking about sleeping with groupies as a kind of prerogative. It’s jarring, because we see how the different sides of Zappa — libertine, family man, round-the-clock musical perfectionist — didn’t quite fit together. But that, in a way, was just how they fit together. He was far from a perfect citizen and didn’t claim to be.
Yet he was singularly charismatic. I used to think that if they made a Zappa biopic, the actor to play him would have been (don’t laugh) Jon Hamm. In the interview clips we see, Zappa speaks with a forceful, sonorous low-voiced directness that was his way of cutting through the crappola of American culture, but he also exuded a twinkling warmth. The film homes in on the private side of Zappa in a startling section that deals with what happened in 1971, when a deranged audience member shoved him off the stage of the Rainbow Theatre in London, an incident that put him in a wheelchair for nine months. Recalling that period, Zappa says, “You find out who your friends are.” The cataclysm did more than halt his career. It changed him, maybe humanized him.
My one bone to pick with “Zappa” is that it gives short shrift to the extraordinary creative period that followed that incident — Zappa in the first half of the ’70s, when he’d found his groove as both musician and star. Maybe I just wish that the film could have been an hour longer, but Zappa had a moment in the culture when he was putting out skewed crossover gems like “Roxy & Elsewhere” and “One Size Fits All.” “Zappa” skips over that entire period in literally a minute, only to devote several minutes to the Kronos Quartet’s performance of one of his compositions that sounds like Charles Ives on an abrasive day.
I’m sorry, but if Zappa had succeeded in his dream of becoming one more hallowed composer of stuff like that, we wouldn’t be talking about him now. In the late ’70s and ’80s, he had a couple of freak singles (“Dancing Fool” and, of course, “Valley Girl,” the novelty hit recorded with his daughter Moon), but by that point his albums, like the extended rock opera “Joe’s Garage,” were fading out of the conversation. Zappa reacted by embracing his inner rock snob. He became an elder statesman of rock by testifying before Congress against the rating of albums (always a tempest in a teapot — and no, it wasn’t censorship), but his interviews took on a moralistic severity, as he basically said: I write music that I have to pay musicians (like the London Symphony) a pretty penny to record, and that’s my legacy. It’s not commercial, and I don’t want to be commercial.
“Zappa” winds up being a tribute to that side of Frank Zappa: the maestro who was a startlingly austere and accomplished composer, and the one who was quite open about the fact that he regarded the American pop-music landscape as a corrupt wasteland. (You could hear it in the sneer with which he sang “Disco Boy.”) In staying true to that lofty and devoted side of Zappa, “Zappa” creates an emotional through line that lends a rare clarity to the life and work of this most idiosyncratic of all rock stars. At the same time, a rock star is very much what Frank Zappa was; that was intrinsic to his glory. In his mind, he could have been — he was — a serious composer, but there’s another sense in which he was the musical equivalent of the clown who longs to be Hamlet. He didn’t realize that he already was.