‘Zappa’ A Loving, Engaging Portrait of Modern Music’s Greatest Genius

Rating: A

I remember back in college wondering how one gets into Frank Zappa; for a kid in the early 00s, that was an overwhelming proposition. The sheer amount of his output is staggering; the different phases of Zappa’s life and career impossible to fathom. And so I did what all music fans do when trying to approach a new-to-them artist. I asked someone how one goes about getting into Frank Zappa.

The dude I asked just laughed. “You don’t get into Frank Zappa,” he told me. “Frank Zappa gets into you.”

That’s the kind of seemingly meaningless statement music fans often give each other. We’re a pretentious bunch by natural inclination, and I’d by that point long since learned to dismiss such none answers as bullshit. So I blind bought two Zappa albums: Freak Out and Hot Rats. Listening to those albums I was immediately furious because, as it turns out, my friend was right.

Zappa’s career was too wide and too varied to simply “get into.” One must be slowly and methodically introduced to Zappa, taking it step by step and absorbing the grand movements of his career in such a way as to allow the experience of Zappa to take you away. Zappa was the kind of artist who seeps into the bones of his listeners, the listeners who got it, anyway, and transports them on a sonic journey into the depths of the strange and unique. It’s a journey not to be taken lightly. In fact, in order to take it at all you have to have a specific constitution.

Admittedly, I do not. My initial forays into Zappadom, formative as they are, showed me a world too vast for comprehension. Subsequent forays have been tentative and guarded and I can’t bring myself to fully embrace that core madness needed in order to allow Zappa to get into you. All I can do is stand in awe.

As an artist, Zappa is almost unparalleled. He released over 60 albums—each of which bending, blending, and breaking genres—until his death in 1993, and almost as many have been released since his then. The archives are such that we could probably get at least one new record of new material a year for the next 100 years and still be shocked by the brilliance and artistry of the modern era’s most brilliant and batshit composers. Distilling his life and career is an unenviable, impossible task.

Or, at least, it was impossible. Director Alex Winter somehow managed to pull it off with his latest documentary, the aptly titled Zappa. Sifting through thousands upon thousands of eras of footage and recordings, Winter has assembled an exhaustive look inside the mind of music’s most notorious mad genius, creating a loving and reverent portrait that isn’t afraid to highlight the warts as much as it celebrates the beauty.

Though best known to average audiences as Bill S. Preston, esq. from the Bill and Ted trilogy, Winter has spent the last decade forging himself into an accomplished and stellar documentarian. From 2013’s Downloaded, which explored the rise and fall of Napster and the changing face of the music industry, to this year’s Showbiz Kids, a look inside the reality of child stardom, Winter has proven himself a capable and profound documentary filmmaker who knows how to follow initial curiosity through to create engaging and informative works of cinematic journalism.

He needs every ounce of those skills to make sense of the twisting paths that comprise Zappa’s life and career. Winter is not only well-suited for the task, he also comes well-armed with unfettered access to the Zappa archives, taking us as close as he possibly can to an inside look at the man who would become the myth.

At times, Winter structures his work like an autobiography. The access he had to the archives allows him to weave the legend of Zappa in such a way that provides Zappa the opportunity to speak for himself and tell his own story. And what a great story it is.

Winter takes us from Zappa’s childhood—complete with home videos, even some Zappa himself spliced together with old horror and science fiction films to make life seem a bit more interesting—all the way to the performance of The Yellow Shark in Germany and Zappa’s subsequent death. Using archival interviews, Winter allows Zappa to serve as narrator of his own story, giving us an inside look at his genius.

What develops is a complex portrait of a man whose singular obsession looks, from the outside, a lot like madness. And yet with Winter as our guide, we come to understand that the line between genius and madness is a lot less clear than we might be able to know.

Bolstered by interviews with former members of Zappa’s various bands—including Steve Vai, Ian Underwood, Mike Keneally, and Pamela Des Barres—as well as Zappa’s wife Gail, Winter engages in a total 360 look at the man whose life would become synonymous with unfettered personal freedom to the point where he became an actual symbol of liberty in Czechoslovakia.

Even while the notes of Zappa’s life might be familiar to many of his most ardent fans and followers, Winter captures them beautifully here and creates an engaging work that both exalts and explores its subject with a truly objective eye. Zappa could be a hard, difficult man to work for and live with, and neither Winter nor Zappa shies away from the realities of Zappa’s singular quest for absolute perfection.

It’s that very quest that makes Zappa and his continued output so impressive and incomparable. It takes a specific kind of mad genius to do what Zappa did, and ability is only half the battle. What Zappa shows best is Zappa’s unparalleled will and determination. Because genius alone can’t cut it. The real lesson of his life and career is that it really is the “99% perspiration” that ultimately wins the day.

Zappa is still a force that must be experienced to be understood, and Zappa never supposes that it’s not. Still, it contextualizes the genius and work ethic behind the perceived madness of its subject and allows for an interesting inroad into Zappa fanaticism. Old fans will revel in the archival footage of Zappa and The Mothers in their heyday, and new fans may find themselves surprised at the sheer depth of Zappa’s history and output.

And both might find themselves shocked to find that maybe Zappa isn’t as difficult as his legend makes him out to be. Sure, as a composer he’s second to none, and the complexity of his musical arrangements have yet to be equaled, but perhaps the doorway into Zappadom isn’t as foreboding as it might seem. It still, I think, takes a certain type of mind to get into Zappa, a mind that’s willing to let Zappa get into them as much as they get into Zappa. But maybe it’s not as difficult as the gatekeepers would have you believe. Perhaps it just takes a willingness to be truly open, and ready to receive the message. As an instrument of that delivery, Zappa is perfect.

Zappa is available on demand on Friday November 27.

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