Film Review: Zappa Dir: Alex Winter

Frank Zappa was always something of an enigma, and, nearly 30 years after his death he remains just that.

ZappaAlex Winter’s documentary attempts to cover the quite singular career of Frank Zappa, and with a running time of over two hours one might assume it is, if nothing else, a thorough overview of the head Mother. But,  with as much  insightful information and previously unseen footage at his disposal, Winter manages to gloss over much of Zappa’s  most popular and cherished music.

Much of the film is narrated by Frank himself thanks to vintage interviews. We learn that the future Muffin Man was not interested in making music until well into his teen years. Instead, growing up in Southern California in the 1940s, Frank learned how to make explosives when he was 6 and tried to blow up his high school at age 15.

Finally, after meeting Don Van Vliet (soon to be Captain Beefheart) Zappa discovered the blues, r&b and doo-wop and never looked back.

Winter does a fine job of recreating Frank’s formative years, but where he drops the ball is when The Mothers start releasing records such as We’re Only In It For The Money, Freak Out! Or Absolutely Free.  Ex-Mothers such as Bunk Gardner, Ian & Ruth Underwood are on hand for recollections, but there is little mention of the music from that period, and even more astonishing, nothing much from Frank’s most popular (commercially) period in the early 70s when One Size Fits All, Apostrophe and Over-Nite Sensation were found in every university dorm room.

Instead we are privy to rare Whiskey A Go-Go footage, a brief comment from Alice Cooper about being signed to Zappa’s Bizarre label and a bit of cool footage from 200 Motels.

ZappaAfter the breakup of the original Mothers…”we didn’t even get a two week notice”, moans Bunk Gardner…then its on to late 70s “hits” such as Valley Girl and Dancing Fool, which, frankly, are his less interesting works.

Despite my gripes there is plenty to like about this documentary…the impact of the attack on Zappa on stage in London in 1971, his fight for musical rights against Tipper Gore and the PMRC, and how he inspired the Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution are…inspiring.

Any record collector will go weak in the knees after seeing the footage of Zappa’s tape library and women such as Pamela des Barres, Ruth Underwood and widow Gail Zappa making important contributions. The most memorable and most touching is Ruth Underwood’s speech near the end.

Perhaps Alex Winter was the wrong director for the job, although having one of the guys from Bill & Ted directing this flick seems appropriately Zappa-esque.

That said, I can’t help feeling there’s more to the story…much more.

Marty Duda