IN OCTOBER 1978 Frank Zappa appeared on “Saturday Night Live” as both host and musical guest. Alex Winter, a teenager at the time, watched him perform and was impressed by Zappa’s talent—he particularly enjoyed the wit of his single “Dancin’ Fool”—but thought that the musician “clearly had a lot of other stuff going on”. (Zappa’s opening monologue fell flat; his stint as host went downhill from there.) The show marked the beginning of Mr Winter’s interest in the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.
Now, more than 40 years later, he has directed a new documentary film chronicling Zappa’s journey from sickly child to genre-defying composer and rock legend. Mr Winter, whose previous films have explored file-sharing, the Panama papers, bitcoin and the dark web, spent six years trawling through material: Zappa released 62 albums during his lifetime (a further 54 have been released posthumously) and thousands of hours of footage of the star have survived. Mr Winter’s team started a crowdfunding campaign in order to preserve Zappa’s archive, raising $1.25m. The result, “Zappa”, is an honest portrait of a man who created humorous, imaginative art, did not crave commercial success and fought against censorship so that other artists could pursue their goals as they pleased.
From his earliest years, Zappa’s natural knack for performance was clear. In home videos, he dresses up in costumes and acts out short stories with his siblings. The young Zappa was drawn to disparate types of music: the outlandish musical comedy of Spike Jones, the arrhythmic, experimental compositions of Edgard Varèse and the blues and country of Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. His parents, though not especially interested in music, encouraged him by buying a phonograph (as a 15th birthday present to her son, his mother also allowed him to place a long-distance call to Varèse). He joined various bands, teaching himself to play the drums and the guitar. By the time he finished high school, he was producing avant-garde orchestral pieces.
Zappa left for Los Angeles after graduation. As well as performing, he wrote film scores and pop songs for other artists, experimenting all the time with new styles and production techniques. In 1965, as part of a sting, an undercover vice-squad officer commissioned Zappa to produce an audio tape for a “businessman’s bachelor party”; when he turned over the suggestive recording he was arrested for conspiracy to manufacture pornographic materials and thrown in jail for ten days. The police also raided his studio, seizing much of his work. An anti-authoritarian streak ran through Zappa’s output thereafter.
That year Zappa also joined the Soul Giants—soon renamed the Mothers of Invention—a rock band with which he enjoyed some commercial success. In the documentary, his bandmates speak lovingly of Zappa as an inspiring creative genius, though one who was also often detached and difficult to work with. “We were loud, coarse and strange,” Zappa says in one interview. “And if anyone in the crowd gave us any trouble, we’d tell them to fuck off.” He saw nothing wrong with turning his back on the crowd, berating them and flashing disapproving looks to bandmates who were not meeting his standards. They parted ways in 1969.
Zappa’s only hit song, “Valley Girl”, recorded with his daughter, Moon Unit, was released in 1982. He recoiled from its success, focusing on composing dissonant symphony scores and speaking out against censorship. He testified against the Parents Music Resource Centre, which sought to put “parental advisory” labels on albums containing lyrics that they felt were not suitable for children. He performed in Prague in the wake of the Velvet revolution, and was embraced as a musical genius and freedom fighter.
Mr Winter clearly admires his subject, but the tone of the film is not adulatory. Zappa is depicted as dynamic but flawed: a smart, curious child who also tried to set fire to his school, a talented but irascible musician and a devoted family man who saw nothing wrong with having intimate relationships with other women. (Zappa’s wife, Gail, died in 2015 while the film was being made, but her candid interviews are included.) After his death from prostate cancer in 1992, aged 52, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and given a lifetime achievement Grammy award. Zappa once said that he spent his career “waiting to be disposed of”. This ruminative new documentary shows how his unusual talents live on.
“Zappa” is screening in limited theatres and streaming on demand from November 27th