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Thread: ZAPPA (Alex Winter 2020)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    ZAPPA (Alex Winter 2020)



    A genius, or at least Kent Nagano said so, and an elusive one who was also an eccentric pop icon

    You will be astonished, even if your are an inveterate admirer, to read of all the tributes to Zappa by scientists and artists listed on his Wikipedia article. My favorite, though, is this: "Belgian biologists Bosmans and Bosselaers discovered in the early 1980s a Cameroonese spider, which they in 1994 named Pachygnatha zappa because "the ventral side of the abdomen of the female of this species strikingly resembles the artist's legendary moustache."

    We should begin with the mustache. It is all we know for sure. This film, however, takes us far afield. We learn that he was a unique composer and performer tirelessly, perhaps even destructively, focused on his intensive artistic output, whose equal facility in rock, avant-garde classical, and many other genres of music around and in between set him apart from all others. And he was also a blunt man (born in Baltimore!) who was not only a champion of artistic and political freedom, but a symbol of those things so potent in Eastern Europe during its time of liberation from Soviet domination that he was greeted by 5,000 on arriving in Czechoslovakia on one occasion and made a special cultural ambassador by the President, Václav Havel. Notably he mocked hippies as well as straights, took his fight against parental caution labels on records, which he saw as as censorship, to a Congressional hearing, and opposed drug restrictions but personally eschewed drugs, while smoking constantly.

    It is very hard to make a documentary about an artist as sui generis as Frank Zappa and not have him start to sound like any other rock musician and rock music movie, and even the multi-hyphenate Alex Winter, the child actor, filmmaker, artist and costar of the "Bill and Ted" series with Keanu Reeves, can avoid this pitfall. Sometimes Winter tries to introduce a rapid-fire avant-garde flurry of montage images to live up to Zappa's eccentricity, and it falls flat; you just wish he'd get on with it - there is so much to tell. Yet you also end feeling this film isn't up to Zappa's originality and eccentricity; not by a long shot: a FilmThreat review deplores this film's "kitschy piano music when things get dour and other documentary clichés." It's hard to reconcile the rock star life with the Mothers of Invention and countless other aggregations with the composer inspired by Stockhausen whose first influential record purchase was a disk of the music of Edgar Varèse. Winter makes use of ample film files, and provides a good sense of Zappa's breadth. One can quibble, but you can't say we don't come out knowing something.

    He had and no doubt yet has full-on worshippers, but still he is not altogether an easy man to like. Perhaps that's the point: he can be adored, but not liked. He was not a hugger, or even a thanker, sometimes. He could be indifferent to his other musicians, was on tour when his daughter was being born. Later, she conveyed a letter to him, in the house, begging him to let her sing on his album, just so she could spend quality time with her father. Such details are colorful but not endearing.

    With the legendary mustache were the children's names, especially of the first two kids, Moon Unit (Moon for short) and Dweezil. They've stuck by these names. (The other two kids are Ahmet and Diva. Their mother is Gail, who died five years ago but is featured in this film.) Zappa was striking looking, tall and thin, and dressed in a colorful and stylish manner. He often appeared on TV. Did this not take away time from his frenetic creativity? He would have said he did it to get his work heard and raise funds to make it. But he was a celebrity and when you see where he lived it seems he was rich. His children fight over his legacy and their inheritances are divided up unevenly. The film doesn't mention this.

    Frank Zappa died in 1993 of prostate cancer. The film, which ends with particular grace, shows that he was creative up to the end and managed some notable performances with orchestras. An impressive moment comes when Zappa shows the large space in his Los Angeles house dedicated to his "vault" with a library of recordings on tape and other data. He wanted to have all his many musical ideas performed and on hand, and claimed that whether others heard them was secondary to him. He made 62 albums while alive but not surprisingly, given the wealth of material he left, there have been 53 albums made posthumously. That he strove for selfless creativity and yet lived the celebrity life are just two of his many rich contradictions. This seems to be the first Zappa film even though it's been 27 years. There need to be others that explore other angles.

    Zappa, 129 mins., and Winter reported setting a Kickstarter fundraising record in developing the film, which was to debut at the 2020 SXSW cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Camden, Montclair, Philadelphia and DOC NYC showings, followed by a Nov. 27, 2020 release. Launches in Virtual Cinemas Nationwide Beginning Friday, December 4.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-26-2020 at 02:13 PM.


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