Monday, March 08, 2021

Zappa (2020)

This documentary about Frank Zappa by director and writer Alex Winter offers up a pretty good biography, spreading its attentions evenly across most of Zappa's life, which ended in 1993 when he was 52. I learned some things I hadn't known—notably that he lived in New York City for a year or two in 1966 and 1967 and also about his assault on stage in 1971, which put him in a wheelchair for the better part of a year. But mainly it confirmed my sense that Zappa's best period was in the '60s with the original Mothers of Invention. I also appreciated the chance to put a face to Pamela Zarubica's Suzy Creamcheese voice which I know so well from Uncle Meat. The emphasis in Winter's documentary—and it's probably fair—is on Zappa's surly misanthropic perfectionist contrarian personality combined with a lifelong desire to be a composer and rigid dedication to his sense of integrity. Zappa is generally thought of as quintessential Iconoclastic Rock Star, and he was certainly that too—I still put him on the short list of best rock guitarists from the '60s and '70s, working the blues modes. But he considered himself a composer above all else, railed against the mainstream, directed even his rock bands like a conductor, and dreamed of an orchestra at his disposal, which could be adequately rehearsed before concert performance or recording studio. Along with the Velvet Underground, Zappa was an important figure in Soviet-sphere countries such as Czechoslovakia, where the Plastic People of the Universe (named for a song on Absolutely Free) sprang up in his wake. In the West, Zappa sponsored acts as diverse as the GTOs, Captain Beefheart, and Alice Cooper. He is the subject of Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." He was also a reasonably straight and square guy—married to the same woman for more than 25 years, with whom he had four children, though he philandered openly on the road. He divided much of his time between working at home in his recording studio, then escaping on the road for tours and the rock star lifestyle, and then escaping from that in turn to go back to the sanctity of his home again. I wish, as the '60s partisan, that the picture spent more time on that period but it wouldn't be fair to the rest of Zappa's career. He's still hard to like, too often the preening egotist for my taste, but certainly I feel for his desire to be a composer, which is about as futile as, say, writing poetry (or blogging, for that matter). It grated on him because, above all else, he was practical about supporting his family and, as he notes here bitterly several times, there is no money certain in composing. It is a cost center, not a profit center. It's sad that someone with so much talent got cancer and died so young—one of the few annoyances of this documentary is that it keeps noticing his cigarette smoking, when it was prostate and not lung cancer that he died of. Still, fair point: hey everybody, don't smoke, especially if you get cancer.

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading about the 1971 assault on Zappa in Rolling Stone at the time. The audience member who pushed him off the stage was supposedly jealous that his girlfriend was infatuated with Zappa, but when questioned about his motive, said that wasn't it at all, rather that Zappa wasn't "giving value for money"(!) Talk about insult to injury, first some stupid with a flared bum, who then slaps Frank with one of the hoariest Brit cliches of all.

    -- Richard "Uncle Milt" Riegel