‘Zappa’ captures rock genius as revolutionary

Not rated. At the Brattle Virtual Cinema and VOD.
Grade: A-
Musical genius Frank Zappa was also a world-class iconoclast. This made for a difficult fit for him in both the corporate musical music world and in the political world of the second half of the 20th century. But as we see in “Zappa,” the wonderful documentary from Alex Winter aka Bill of “Bill and Ted” fame, Frank Zappa, whose albums include “Freak Out!,” “We’re Only in It for the Money,” “Sheik Yerbouti” and “Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch” and who co-wrote and co-directed the 1971 cult film “200 Motels,” had a lot more fun and received a lot more acclaim than he ever expected. He was even posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
On top of all that, Zappa co-wrote the 1982 hit single “Valley Girl” with his 14-year-old daughter Moon Zappa. It was his biggest hit. In his youth, it turns out, Zappa was more interested in chemistry than music. This may have been because his father, who was of Sicilian descent, worked at the Edgewood Arsenal chemical warfare facility in Maryland before moving to California, and it’s not surprising that young Frank, who dabbled in homemade gun and flash powders, planned to blow up his high school.
The film begins in Prague in 1991, a couple of years before his death. Zappa had enjoyed a hero’s welcome when he first visited Prague at the behest of Vaclav Havel because Zappa had become an icon of freedom when his work was banned by the Soviet censors and had to be smuggled into the country, where it influenced a generation of young Czechs.
Frank Zappa performing with The Mothers of Invention in ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo credit: Cal Schenkel. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.Frank Zappa in ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo credit: Roelof Kiers. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.Show Caption of Expand
At home, the Mothers of Invention, Zappa’s band, had enjoyed somewhat less success than say the Beatles or the Eagles. But the Mothers were popular with other musicians and they had their following on tour. “Zappa” is a deep dive into the Zappa psyche insofar as Winter and his editor Mike J. Nichols have taken footage from Zappa’s vast archive and period pop culture and cut it into a kind of stream of Zappa-consciousness. For example, after noting the Lancaster, Calif., racist reaction to his early racially diverse ensemble, Winter shows us an image of Godzilla incinerating a fleeing crowd. As we hear from such intimates as Zappa’s longtime wife and insightful observer Gail Zappa, band members Steve Vai and an expressive Ruth Underwood, the images on the screen tell an at times marvelously zany story, even when the mood is (frequently) angry or sad.
Zappa’s art was a virtuoso form of musical theater with an absurdist streak, and the film argues that he and his art found a spiritual home in 1960s New York City rather than L.A. In a 1978 SNL skit, John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd tease “rock star” Zappa about his anti-drug lifestyle. Taylor Swift might want to know that Zappa was one of the first, if not the first, major musician to create his own label. At one point, Zappa even paid the London Symphony Orchestra to perform his music at the Barbican.
“Zappa” the film is what used to be called mind-blowing as revealing as it is. The artist at the center of the film lived most of his adult life in legendary Laurel Canyon, where he was a resident guru. Zappa could have been a drawing made by R. Crumb, and he remains something of a mystery. Someone remarks that Zappa “could have written hit records all day long,” and you believe it. Why he didn’t and what made him tick — and ticked him off — are the secrets at the heart of “Zappa.” Rock on.
(“Zappa” contains profanity and sexual references.)

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