In the decades since the death of Frank Zappa, scores of film-makers had approached his wife and business partner Gail about making a documentary about the star. “They got an infinite amount of no’s,” said their son Ahmet Zappa to the Guardian. “None of them had the right approach.”
That is, until actor and director Alex Winter made a different pitch. “I wasn’t interested in making a typical music documentary about some rock star guitar hero,” he said. “I was interested in who Frank Zappa was as a man and his relationship to his art and the world around him. What were his values and struggles? And I wanted to be honest about his contradictions, of which there were many.”
“In Zappa-land,” he said, “everything is paradoxical.”
The resulting film, titled Zappa, presents a nuanced and authoritative portrait of an artist who may have spoken prodigiously to the media during his lifetime about his music and politics but who remained oddly aloof as a person. It helped immeasurably in forming a fuller portrait of the man that Gail Zappa not only gave Winter free access to the gigantic vault of his music and video work, but also spoke for the film in the months before she herself died in 2015 of lung cancer. (Frank died of prostate cancer 22 years before). When Gail started talking to Winter she knew she was sick. So he began filming even before he got financing for the project. Crucially, he also secured final cut of the film from the Zappa estate, which is run by the four children, with Ahmet at the helm. “We wanted this to be a warts-and-all portrait,” Ahmet Zappa said. “This was Alex’s point of view.”
But even with that access, it wasn’t easy for Winter to get to the heart of Zappa, a man who always conveyed a bulletproof confidence in his own vision and philosophy. “I was really interested in getting behind that mask,” Winter said.
To do so, he went back to the artist’s beginning, aided by footage of a young Zappa with his mother and father, to whom he bore a striking resemblance, as well as to old tapes of him talking about his childhood fascinations. A treasured toy for Frank growing up was a gas mask. His father worked at a company that manufactured poison materials during the second world war. Frank also became fascinated with chemicals, putting them to pointed use as a teenager. “I tried to set fire to the high school,” he said in vintage footage.
Zappa first became attracted to music after encountering a collection of work composed by Edgard Varèse that was described as “literally the most frightening, evil, vile thing a human being could listen to,” Zappa recalled.
“I couldn’t understand why people didn’t love it the minute they heard it,” he said.
Zappa became equally attracted to the grinding blues of Elmore James and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, but when he picked up a guitar and taught himself to play in emulation, his parents sternly discouraged him. Likewise, when he formed his first band, a racially-mixed unit that slammed out hard R&B, the local California community viewed them “as a threat to decency.”
Undaunted, Zappa began making scores of recordings for himself and others, including a sketchy guy who wanted him to make a soundtrack for his stag party. The result, though utterly un-erotic, wound up getting the young musician busted by the vice squad who threw him in jail. “That really knocked him on his ass,” Winter said. “It woke him up to how much animosity there was towards someone like him, just for being him.”
At the same time, Zappa had the savvy to locate the right musicians to flesh out his aural aspirations. In 1965, he formed the first Mothers of Invention, a unit that didn’t sound or act like any other band of the time. Besides their unusual music, they mocked the emerging hippie movement, the trendy drug culture, as well as the larger art world around them. “Frank didn’t adhere to any movements,” Winter said.
He also didn’t interact with his band members in the usual way. “This wasn’t a bunch of guys who came together and made decisions equally,” Ahmet Zappa said. “Frank was the magician, and the band were his magical tool belt of people who could play the kind of music he was writing.”
According to those who played with him, Zappa was hardly the warmest of leaders. “I don’t ever remember him embracing anybody,” ex-Mother Bunk Gardner said in the film. According to Winter, “he could be a martinet. All of the musicians had varying degrees of resentment or unresolved issues with the way he just dispatched people after working with them. At the same time, they all looked at the period when they worked with him as the most fruitful of their artistic lives.”
Zappa could be equally chilly in his dealings with women. In the film, a friend of Gail’s recalls that, just after Frank met her, he told the friend “tell her if she wants to fuck, she’ll have to come over.”
But their marriage became a powerful, loving and enduring one, lasting for the rest of the musician’s life. There was, however, a caveat. Zappa carved out his own life within the framework of the marriage. “When Frank was on the road, he lived his life like a rock star,” Ahmet said. “He was a real cock-smith. When I asked my mother about it, I got this strange look.”
“People are human and it hurts, and she says so in the film,” Winter said. “There’s no doubt he was a sexist.”
Zappa had an unusual relationship with his children as well. On the one hand, they were “a primary source of his entertainment,” Ahmet said. “When he was with you, you had his entire attention.”
But, by dint of his obsession with work, he spent far more of his time on the road or recording music than with his family. He also spent lots of time of giving interviews for a practical reason. Zappa knew he was far more likely to get attention for his provocative quotes than for his music, which many found difficult, if not baffling. Even some who considered themselves fans of his didn’t understand Zappa’s intention, viewing him, reductively, as just an eccentric guitar God with freak appeal. In fact, said Winter, “Frank wasn’t a rock musician at all. He was just using different genres in the service of his work as an avant-garde composer.”
Still, in order to turn that rarefied role into a sustained career, Zappa had to draw on another key part of his character – as a realist. While he had contempt for the way business can corrupt art, he became his own kind of businessman – and a surprisingly adept one, running a long-running indie label for his music and video work along with his wife. “He and Gail were operating their own mom and pop boutique,” Winter said. “They had to be incredibly clever and resourceful.”
In order to pull that off, Zappa also felt he had to be combative. In his view, it was him and his family against the world, a stance which exacerbated his public image as smug and condescending. Even the most rare and intimate footage in the documentary never catches Zappa conveying a whiff of conventional vulnerability. Still, Winter believes there was more openness to both the musician, and to his work, than it seems on the surface. “He’s not singing or talking about his pain the way John Lennon did,” the director said, “but Frank is still a very personal artist in the sense that he was always focused on chronicling his life experience. He was pouring out his soul in his own way.”
That often involved humor. “Frank used humor the way Spike Jones did - as an instrument to convey a kind of emotion and to unseat the audience,” Winter said.
Towards the end of his life, two important events took place which the film chronicles: first, Zappa’s trip to a just-liberated Czech Republic, where he was greeted like a messiah of free expression. Then there was his work with the classical group the Ensemble Modern, who came the closest to performing his music the way it lived in his mind.
In the years since his death, Zappa’s reputation in that community has only increased. “The part of the music world that dismissed Frank the most in his lifetime is now the one that takes him the most seriously,” Winter said. “Now, most of the classical world considers him one of the greatest 20th century composers that America has produced. They did not think that when he was alive.”
Still, Winter doesn’t believe Zappa ever became bitter, either about the earlier reception to his work or about facing mortality at 53. “Towards the end of his life, he realized that people were beginning to get the substance of who he was as an artist,” he said. “And to him, on a deep level, that was very satisfying.”
Zappa will be released digitally in the US on 27 November with a UK date to be announced