I wasn’t expecting to learn much from Zappa (2020), Alex Winter’s deep-dive documentary into the life of iconoclastic composer and artist Frank Zappa. Like most weird-music junkies who’ve stumbled into Zappa’s orbit, I’ve read and watched virtually everything I could get my hands on about him, and he’s long been a problematic fave. His brilliant albums are often marred by toxic gender politics, but he’s also an innovative guitarist, a dazzlingly inventive composer, and a clear-eyed, straight-talking political gadfly. Zappa remains a formative influence, and his music still crackles with unmistakeable originality.
Winter’s documentary details Zappa’s life in a familiar, linear way, starting from his creative teen years in the California desert before ramping into his incredibly prolific music career. This began with pickup groups, commercial jingles, and film scores, but ultimately launched in earnest with the formation of the Mothers of Invention in the mid-1960s. Over the course of the next twenty-five years or so, Zappa created an enormous body of work, his music an inimitable blend of blues, jazz, experimental, and 20th-century classsical influences. With the weight of Zappa’s robust video archives behind his efforts, Winter manages to back Zappa’s music and artistic vision with copious amounts of previously unseen footage, including interviews, appearances, and performances. He largely lets the archival footage do the work, although numerous new interviews — chiefly from Zappa’s wife Gail and numerous members of his bands, including Bunk Gardner, Mike Keneally, Ruth Underwood, and Steve Vai — provide additional context. Indeed, the real gift of the film for diehard Zappaphiles is likely this wealth of unseen material. (Although I often wished the performance footage hadn’t been so frequently truncated.)
In the end, the documentary did not teach me much more than I already knew, but the film does have a surprisingly powerful cumulative effect in the way it paints its portrait. Letting the source material speak for itself, Winter sketches a life with considerable artistic reverence, a trace of critique, and a haunting, existential eye for Zappa’s workaholic drive to produce music, even as his health rapidly declined in the early nineties. Zappa and his music can be perverse and inaccessible, but I’ve always found both fascinating, and Zappa is a worthy document of the ways in which he was a singular talent and uncompromising visionary.