“Zappa” is one of The Mothers of recent music docs


Alex Winter’s look at the multi-hyphenate is an expansive two hours bolstered by its unseen footage and stellar editing.


He went by Frank having thought his birth name was Francis Vincent Zappa. It wasn’t until his mid-20s that he discovered his name wasn’t Francis; it was indeed Frank. It’s a fun side note, sure, but it’s also pretty fitting. As his name got tighter, his sonic style became more specific, much more himself from his own perspective. Later, as he became more mature in the traditional sense, his punkier sensibilities expressed themselves in more literal ways. There was music, of course, but also an uptick in speech and activism. The same voice was there. It just became easier to digest and, for a few people, more effective.

By his last years, he even came full circle to his childhood exploits as a composer. Going from Edgard Varèse to 200 Motels and back again is definitely a path one can take, and Zappa does a commendable job at echoing that sort of coke-adjacent counter-culture chaos the artist spun together so uniquely. Is it a clear narrative? Yes, but that’s not necessarily bad. This is about one of the most eccentric multi-hyphenates of the 20th century. Of course the impressionistic bent leaves far more of an impression, and thank God for that.

The usual pieces are there—the talking heads, the oodles of archive footage. What makes it work here, though, is how the documentary plays with those tropes, largely thanks to director Alex Winter (yes, that Alex Winter). Not surprisingly, his composition is that of a musician’s. Footage of and by Zappa as a child splits and stitches itself together. It’s at the film’s, and its subject’s, starting point, that Winter plows through the interviews as if he’s itching to get to the other side. It’s not the steadiest structure, but the point is always there.

Zappa does a commendable job at echoing that sort of coke-adjacent counter-culture chaos the artist spun together so uniquely.

If anything, how Zappa introduces its more familiar components is the weakest link if anything. It never stops in its tracks, but the shift from impressionistic to verbal is jarring enough to feel less like the film telegraphing its own technical arc than a dip into convention, causing the pacing to hiccup and focus to shift. Thankfully, the talking heads are varied enough to evade fluff for the most part. Contemporaries such as Ruth Underwood are more appreciative than praising. Some quick clips of Zappa’s late wife, Gail, further deconstruct his aura by recalling him from a much more familiar perspective.

By the time Bruce Bickford’s ‘70s and ‘80s stop-motion work snakes through, the personal and professional become opposite sides of the same illusion. Despite the plethora of unearthed footage, it’s Mike J. Nichols’ editing that keeps the flow. It keeps the flow by letting it sway back and forth, speeding and stuttering through its themes to blur them together. It’s so light that it avoids turning into simple collage work. Instead, it solidifies Winter’s vision of turning Zappa’s life into a tone poem, and it does so without objectifying or deifying him.

Its issues end up milder, and Winter and Nichols largely absolve themselves of a few inconsistencies. Material not alluding to but directly referencing Zappa’s influence across the globe is early on. It then disappears for about an hour without mention, yet with this comes Zappa’s own growing pains. The scope expands. The impact, like the man himself, is similar even if it appears more mature. From his impacts to his attempts, Winter’s film shows a reverence—within reason. Just because he was grandiose doesn’t make him some sort of god, even with his talents. He’s still Frank, and that’s more than enough.

Zappa hits VOD this Friday, November 27.

Zappa Trailer:

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Matt Cipolla

Writer and film critic for hire who has worked with WGN Radio, Bright Wall/Dark Room, RogerEbert.com, The Film Stage, and more. Firmly believes that ".gif" is pronounced "jiff."

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