Alex “Bill S. Preston, Esq.” Winter directs this most excellent documentary on musician, composer, conductor, artist, director, businessman, ambassador and man who once sat on a toilet, Frank Zappa.
Zappa’s eclectic career is well documented, enabling Winter to mine his personal archives for illuminating interviews and show footage, edited in a warped and abrasive Zappa style. From pushing the boundaries of rock with the Mothers of Invention to publicly defending art against Reaganite censorship, the film’s fascinating thrust is how the wild-haired freak from the ’60s became the voice of reason for the ’80s, ultimately becoming trade envoy to the newly independent Czech Republic where his music had become an underground symbol of freedom under Communist rule.
Rather than discussing his albums (since there are 112 of them it would have to spend less than a minute on each), Zappa opts for an overview of the man’s work and character, balancing an admiring tone with discussion around the more difficult aspects of his multi-faceted personality. It seems to paint a picture of a musical Dalí, envisioning dreamworlds that only he can see but frustrated by the form’s need for collaboration in executing that vision, what Steve Vai calls “the limitations of others.”
Alice Cooper describes Zappa as deliberately sabotaging his own work, noting that he could have written hit records in his sleep but had no interest in making commercial music. Mothers of Invention percussionist Ruth Underwood calls him “a walking mass of contradictions,” a creative wildman and a freak for discipline, whose surprising dislike of drugs (he was strictly cigarettes, groupies and workaholism) was second only to his hatred of the music industry. But the movie helps make sense of this paradox, presenting his artistic and political endeavours as part of one big truth-seeking mission.
With assistance from Bruce Bickford’s orgiastic claymation, Winter perceptively profiles a perfectionist, iconoclast and one-man industry, who single-handedly invented alternative and indie rock while fighting the music business at every turn. By virtue of its subject, Zappa is so much more than a bog-standard rockumentary.