'Zappa' documentary makes case for musician's brilliance

  • Frank Zappa, center, performing with the Mothers of Invention in the documentary "Zappa."

    Frank Zappa, center, performing with the Mothers of Invention in the documentary "Zappa." Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

  • Alex Winter's documentary "Zappa" gives Frank Zappa his well-earned due within the rock firmament.

    Alex Winter's documentary "Zappa" gives Frank Zappa his well-earned due within the rock firmament. Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Updated 11/27/2020 8:09 AM

"Zappa" - ★ ★ ★

In "Zappa," actor and filmmaker Alex Winter provides an economical, uncritical documentary about the eponymous musician, who died at 52 in 1993. Frank Zappa became famous as an iconoclast, his note-heavy, hyper-orchestrated instrumental riffs meshing with satirically pointed lyrics to create a cerebral, funny, musically mind-blowing genre all his own.


Here, Winter is given the keys to Zappa's vast and varied personal archive to deliver an encomium to an artist who would have been enormously influential had anyone been able to keep up with him. Failing that, he'll simply go down in history as sui generis. Tracing Zappa's childhood in Edgewater, Maryland, where his father worked at the Aberdeen Proving Ground during the development of mustard gas and other chemical compounds, "Zappa" finds a motif that would recur throughout his life, during which he attributed various ailments to the years spent near hazardous material. When the family moved to California, Zappa broke out of his stultifying -- and racist -- environs by playing music with Black bandmates at the same time that he cultivated a lifelong appreciation for the avant-garde composer Edgard Varese.

As a chronology, "Zappa" is pretty straightforward: Winter has a wealth of visual material to work with, and he luckily completed interviews with Zappa's wife, Gail, before her death in 2015. Although Winter touches on Zappa's private life -- including his unapologetic infidelities -- he's far more interested in a creative trajectory that never went entirely mainstream, but proved to be surprisingly enduring nonetheless.

In part, that was because of Zappa's own notoriously prickly nature and stubborn self-belief: Interviewing former members of his band, the Mothers of Invention, Winter conveys a vivid portrait of the artist as a remote, demanding and uncompromising leader. "Zappa" covers the attack from a fan at a 1971 concert in London that resulted in life-threatening injuries; Zappa's feuds with record labels and rock-lyric alarmists like Tipper Gore and Susan Baker; and his emergence as an unlikely international statesman in post-Soviet Czechoslovakia. It's a whirlwind yet comprehensive journey through pop culture and politics, during which Zappa remains a steadfastly principled but essentially unknowable presence (none of his children are interviewed in the film). This isn't a revealing documentary as much as a judiciously admiring one.

"Zappa" gives its subject his well-earned due within the rock firmament. But even more valuable, Winter gives Zappa pride of place among the most important composers of the 20th century, sharing some extraordinary performances of his little-known classical work. The most moving sequence of the film might be former Mothers percussionist Ruth Underwood performing one of Zappa's most exquisite and difficult compositions, "The Black Page." In that moment, it becomes clear that for all of Zappa's earthbound appetites and flaws, he was blessed with the ability to tap into something cosmic, lasting and true.

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Starring: Frank Zappa

Directed by: Alex Winter

Other: A Magnolia Pictures release. Available at afisilver.afi.com. Unrated, but contains profanity, smoking, partial nudity and suggestive material. 129 minutes.

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