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"Zappa" Review

 I'm a fairly casual Frank Zappa fan. While I've got well more than the "Valley Girl" single in my collection, I'm far from a completionist. I've never listened to a Mothers of Invention album, his guitar stuff was too aimless noodly for my taste - when I saw him in Feb. 1988 on what would be his last tour, I thought it could've used a half-hour less guitar soloing - and his avante weird "classical" stuff was just too out there. I liked the funny songs on Apostrophe, Sheik Yerbouti, You Are What You Is, and my favorite album, Tinseltown Rebellion. (Want me to sing you all of "Brown Shoes Don't Make It"? I can do it!)

 So it was with some interest that I approached Alex Winter's (yes, Bill S. Preston Esq.) deep dive documentary, Zappa. The main selling point is that it is comprised heavily of previously unseen footage from Zappa's massive archives beginning with his odd childhood growing up in a home with gas masks due to his father's work to the oddly-late beginnings of his musical career. 

The film really leans into his early days with the Mothers of Invention and how he was a strict taskmaster to his musicians, sometimes seemingly to the point of cruelty or at least aloofness. (To be fair, his single-minded focus led to his not having many personal friends, so he wasn't just mean to the help.) Veterans of his bands interviewed include percussionist Ruth Underwood and uber guitarist Steve Vai and Mike Keneally as well as footage with his widow Gail Zappa, who passed herself in 2015.

 While Zappa is most known for his rock music and goofy songs, it's clear his true passion was classical composition taking inspiration from avante garde composer Edgard Varèse who made "ugly music." Zappa didn't care for the usual classics like Beethoven and set out to make his own difficult music. (Frankly - no pun intended - "modern classical" is an oxymoron; abrasive, unpleasant, soulless noise which sounds like it was written in Excel to make dogs howl on the other side of the planet.) In one clip he admits he just wants to get recordings of his works to take home and listen to, but the economic realities of executing such complex music in a symphonic realm generally precluded proper productions. It seems he funded his classical ambitions with the rock stuff.

With such a heavy emphasis on his early years and then his late-1980s political activities for freedom of expression and race to finish as much classical work as he can after his prostate cancer diagnosis - which ultimately claimed his life a few weeks before his 53rd birthday in December 1993 - something has to get short shrift and unfortunately that is some of his most popular works released in the late-1970s/early-1980s; the stuff I mentioned previously that I like. It only seems to touch on "Valley Girl" because of the backstory of its creation (a lonely Moon Zappa left a note on his studio door introducing herself) and that he had no idea it was a hit because it was on tour.

If you're looking for a primer on this iconoclastic musician, Zappa is ill-suited to the task. If you're a casual fan, it's a bit of a coin toss whether much of this will interest you. But if you're a Zappa superfan, then this is a must see dive into the vaults.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (Currently on Hulu.) 


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