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by Rob Gonsalves

"King of freedom."
4 stars

Some artists — especially artists like Frank Zappa — must hear Thomas Carlyle in their heads from time to time.

Pinching a bit from the scriptures, Carlyle wrote, “Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ‘Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.”

Zappa, who lost his tussle with prostate cancer just shy of his 53rd birthday in 1993, produced as though Carlyle were screaming those words in his ear all the time. At the end of Alex Winter’s new documentary Zappa, we’re told that Zappa put out 62 albums during his life, and his estate has found enough stuff in his sprawling archives to release another fifty-plus. Winter draws from tons of never-seen footage, letting the voluble Zappa tell as much of his story (mainly to contemporaneous interviewers) as possible. At just a hair over two hours (plus several minutes of Kickstarter-lengthened end credits), Zappa feels epic though not too chunky for the newcomer. We get a sense of Zappa the man, composer, performer, and activist against record labels. When Zappa visited Prague in 1990 as a guest of Czech president Václav Havel, he was received, says engineer Dave Dondorf, as “a king of freedom.”

Sometimes we seem to revere the more difficult artists not so much because of the art they make — though that can be enriching — as because of their persistence. Zappa was a one-off who couldn’t make music any other way but his own perfectionist way, and if he ever sold out — his one hit “Valley Girl” came about because he wanted to spend more time with daughter Moon Unit — it was purely coincidental. He was the ultimate cult musician, as well as a musician’s musician; in the film, we see Zappa onstage with John and Yoko, and Lennon genuinely seems honored to be up there with Zappa. (Supposedly Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles’ whack at a Zappa album, and Zappa returned the salute with the cover for the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It for the Money.)

Was Zappa a dick at times? Winter talks to several people (including Zappa’s tough-minded widow Gail, who died in 2015) who allow that, given Zappa’s driven nature, he couldn’t avoid ruffling feathers. A bit cold and isolated, and not emotionally demonstrative, Zappa must’ve run afoul of many of the session musicians he depended on to realize his work. It wasn’t until he started working with musicians who approached his music as fans that he truly got what he wanted. (We also see him tinkering on some horrible proto-computer moving music files around. He was going to get his music how he wanted it if he had to do it all himself on a box that looks like it packed less RAM than an Atari console.) And Zappa was not immune to the charms of groupies, let’s say.

But his crusade against parental-advisory labels on albums, though not really successful, may be his true legacy in terms of his public face in pop culture. He was the severe-looking guy, hair snipped down to a Wall Street cut your dad would approve of, standing up against “Washington wives” and industry fatcats. (It could just be that that was what got him in front of our TV dinners most often.) It took up more of his steadily-decreasing time than he surely wanted it to. Zappa has time to touch on a couple of lesser-loved segments of his life: his score for Timothy Carey’s amazing 1961 film The World’s Greatest Sinner, which Zappa was dismissive of, but which, he acknowledges here, paid enough to let Zappa open a studio; and his dismal hosting gig at Saturday Night Live in 1978, wherein he kept breaking character and mugging to the camera.

The effect is of a peripatetic artistic life, a portrait of an artist who would try anything once except dishonesty.

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originally posted: 11/19/20 07:51:41
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  27-Nov-2020 (NR)
  DVD: 02-Mar-2021


  DVD: 02-Mar-2021

Directed by
  Alex Winter

Written by

  Frank Zappa
  Steve Vai
  Pamela Des Barres
  Gail Zappa

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