I admit it: I’m the guy who searches through a streaming services’ films in alphabetical order, to make sure I don’t miss anything obscure or unusual. This inefficient but strangely relaxing method recently yielded – on Peacock, of all places — Roxy: The Movie (2015), a film documenting a pair of epic concerts from Frank Zappa and the Mothers at Hollywood’s Roxy Theater in 1973. Much of the material performed here is familiar to me from Zappa’s seminal album Roxy & Elsewhere, but adds additional tracks, mixes in alternate performances, and generally serves as a memorable document of one of Zappa’s most beloved lineups.
I’ve cited Roxy & Elsewhere as a gateway album for new Zappa listeners, but I’m not sure the film version will necessarily bear that out for the casual listener. By Zappa standards, it starts rather conventionally, with two bluesy tunes: a simplified version of “Cosmic Debris,” and the amusing “Penguin in Bondage,” both geared toward showcasing extended improvisational solos from the band. These tracks makes for kind of a long-winded start, but the film kicks into high gear right after that with some of Zappa’s best instrumental compositions: “T’Mershi Duween” and “The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat” (a personal favorite, for me). From this point forward, the band’s robust percussion section – two kit drummers in Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson, and legendary mallet percussionist Ruth Underwood – is given a significant spotlight, with a setlist clearly designed to showcase them. Both Humphrey and Zappa jump into Underwood’s percussion pit as well for some of the more intricate sequences, and there’s also a percussion-only rendition of Zappa’s ode to low-budget monster movies, “Cheepnis,” that really shows off Humphrey, Thompson, and Underwood at their best.
There are plenty of intense, complicated, melodious tracks down the home stretch, including “Echidna’s Arf (of You),” “Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?,” “RDZNL,” and “Big Swifty.” Zappa’s goofy ring-leading is in fine form throughout, while Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax) and George Duke (keyboards and synths) contribute impressive lead vocals. Trombonist Bruce Fowler and bassist Tom Fowler round out an impeccable ensemble. It all culminates in the insane spectacle of the “Be-Bop Tango,” an outrageous, intensely difficult instrumental that eventually vamps into extremely silly audience participation. It will all probably be too much for people with more conventional musical tastes, but I loved it, and not just for its epic setlist. Unlike other Zappa concert films I’ve seen, which have a little too much cynicism and contrivance to the stage antics, Roxy: The Movie seems buoyant and organic, an amazing document of incredible performances by musicians who are genuinely having a good time together. You can’t do that on stage any more, indeed.