The advantages of Alex Winter's documentary Zappa are twofold. Firstly, it takes as its subject a figure - the musician Frank Zappa - who in 2021 is but sporadically talked about, and played even less; someone who's been clutched to their hearts by a small, passionate minority, and broadly left behind by the rest of the world. To many - including this viewer - this story will appear all but brand new. Secondly, it would seem that Zappa was busy documenting himself for just this eventuality, in the expectation that, at some point, he would have to be taken seriously. In the film's opening moments, we get a glimpse of the Echo Canyon home he shared with his wife Gail, and more specifically of the vast personal archive from which Winter has mixed-and-matched the bulk of his material. Much of this has to be new, too, even to seasoned Zappa heads. In some ways, the trajectory that material describes is familiar: that of the disaffected, sexless post-War white boy who had his mind blown and his life upended upon exposure to the chugging R'n'B 45s from which he instantly began ripping licks. It's just that Zappa pushed his chosen form to an extreme: 20 minute songs with kazoo solos and guitars tuned to cut right through you, a stage show that was more like an artworld happening than you were getting from, say, The Band. (As the man himself is heard to say in passing: "The whole world is so absurd, we're just giving it back to you.") There's a sense, too, that this life could have been turned in any number of creative directions. Winter's Zappa follows the rockstar route only after a police bust for peddling fake pornographic audiotape, and founding a greeting-card sideline that might, in some bizarro world, have someday rivalled Hallmark. Thanks to its subject's assiduous hoarding, Zappa has the artefacts to prove all of the above.
Winter maintains a clear line through all this notional clutter. One of the reasons Zappa hasn't been safely codified and canonised in the three decades since his death, the film suggests, is that he was as much a composer as he was a performer (cue rostrum pans over frenziedly annotated staves, and an unlikely onstage encounter with Pierre Boulez), assembling orchestras to help recreate the wild-and-woolly, insistently anti-commercial sounds he heard in his head. Just from a programming perspective, Zappa presents as a challenge, his music too far out for today's Planet Rock schedules, though it may well find a foothold on the Radio 3 playlists in another fifty years. Winter isn't so in thrall to his subject's "visionary" status that he hands out free passes for human failings. Certain accounts here flag how Zappa (at least in his younger incarnation) could be aloof and controlling, while one off-the-cuff interview clip unearths some fairly unflattering attitudes towards women, doubtless of a piece with attitudes many successful male rockstars demonstrated towards women in the late 1960s. (Winter offsets this against far fonder testimony from the tough, salty, sensible broads who've outlived Zappa, and some of those attitudes.) If Zappa has a weakness, it's one held in common with a lot of these collagey, in-their-own-words docs: a tendency to reduce the music everybody's calling revolutionary to no more than a background, a bed, and the live performance to no more than a snapshot. You feel for Winter, looking at that archive - not just the music, but the artwork, the movies, the droll chatshow appearances, the claymation stag films - and trying to pare down this restlessly inventive life down to a representative 129 minutes. For a while, particularly as we navigate the untethered back end of the Sixties, nothing much on screen is allowed to breathe. Winter's racing to get to the good stuff - or more of the good stuff, because the Zappa archive, it transpires, was a veritable goldmine.
From the copious tie-dye and facial hair to the yammering speech of those appearing before the camera, much of this footage paints a scene within seconds: you might want to see the rest of it, but the film never really needs it. A snippet from Indianapolis cable TV that has to have sat on a shelf since broadcast adroitly illuminates the Zappa state-of-mind after he was pushed from the stage by a jealous boyfriend in 1971; behind-the-scenes footage from a promo shoot for the singer's MTV-era hit "Valley Girl" reveals Zappa's obvious contempt for the whole process. What kind of a scene is it? Ever-shifting, for one, and not without its tensions, as that attack makes clear. There were the eternal battles against the industry's machinations, and a slower-spreading cultural conservatism: the Zappa story will do as well as any for an illustration of how the counterculture ran slap-bang into Reaganism. One of the many minor pleasures here is seeing Zappa's debut of a new look, more Sam Elliott than John Wark, around the time he began to appear on daytime talkshow sofas and before Senate committees to argue the case for free speech. Winter shows how it was but a step from there to becoming the embodiment of liberty for those freedom-seeking Czech teenagers who sought his wisdom at the end of the decade ("Please try and keep your country unique"). By then, he'd been reclaimed as a wise elder, but - more so than many of his cheque-chasing, cola-endorsing contemporaries - he'd retained the lessons learnt in that late Sixties moment: the importance of play, experimentation, creative risktaking; how not everything needs to be monetised (Alice Cooper isn't alone here in noting someone of Zappa's talent could have knocked out many more hits than he did); the value of one's own independence. Winter, whose own choices (the Bill & Ted films, Freaked) have themselves leant towards the agreeably playful, succeeds in prising open our painted-over window onto that outlook, and making a case as to why it matters that we keep a few screwballs like Zappa around, even if the noise they're making does nothing for your ears, soul or pocketbook. He should do Beefheart next.
Zappa is now streaming via altitude.film.