Today (Dec. 21, the first official day of winter) would have been Frank Zappa’s 80th birthday. Given how his music continues to attract new generations and the prescience of his social commentary, it’s hard to believe he has been gone for 27 years. Happily, filmmaker Alex Winter has just released a compelling, long-awaited documentary about Zappa’s life and musical legacy. David Konow spoke with Winter about the film and its subject for PKM.
Not long before Frank Zappa died in 1993, he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. His response was quintessential Zappa: It wasn’t important. Yet Zappa wasn’t the kind of guy you could easily forget, and he left a remarkable legacy behind in the short 52 years he was here.
In a career that spanned the 1960s to the early 1990s, Zappa released 62 albums, and 53 more were released posthumously. He is also widely revered as a twentieth century classical composer, a political activist, and a cultural figure who raised society’s awareness against censorship, political corruption, and the all-around bullshit of everything in general.
Frank lived quite a life, one that’s tough to fit all into one movie, but Alex Winter covered a hell of a lot of ground in Zappa, and he pulled a pretty mean feat in laying out a complicated personality clearly without judgement. The documentary has no narrator, and Winter uses newly discovered interviews with Zappa, along with fresh interviews with Zappa’s family as well as the musicians who helped bring his music to life throughout this career.
For many years, the first words that people used to describe Zappa included genius, iconoclast, weirdo, bizarre, opinionated, and outrageous, just to name a few. But these have always been facile impressions that can’t even scratch the surface of his depth and life. As you watch Zappa and unpeel the layers, a lot of surprising revelations come to light, and it was a wonderful treasure hunt for Winter to embark on.
As Winter explains, “My interest in Zappa goes back to the Seventies growing up, hearing my brother and his friends playing him. Not only that, but seeing him on SNL perked me up to this guy. He seemed more interesting than I could have imagined, and he grew into a pretty formidable cultural figure beyond just music. But I didn’t get into Zappa’s music in a meaningful way until I was an adult, and I really began to get a much broader sense of what he was doing. Recently, it struck us that his life had been so extraordinary and so unique, and there had never really been an examination of his life in a documentary, so we decided to throw our hat in the ring and see if we could be the ones to do that.”
“He was extremely maverick, he was hyper-liberated and there was a complete extended middle finger aimed at all times with Zappa long before a punk band showed up.”
Winter got the blessing of Zappa’s widow, Gail, to go forward, and he was given access to the sacred Zappa vaults. Frank documented practically everything, and the footage from the vaults provided the road map Winter needed to document Zappa’s life and music. Winter also sought help from Kickstarter to complete the movie, and over 8,000 fans chipped in. (In fact, Zappa raised more money through Kickstarter than any other documentary in history.)
It’s not surprising to learn there was a lot of visual footage in the Zappa archives. Frank was a multi-media artist who made films, like the cult classic 200 Motels and the concert film Baby Snakes, and he initially wanted to be an editor.
200 Motels (1971)-Official trailer:
His father was a chemist, and you get the impression it could have inspired young Frank to experiment as well. (It could also explain his ability to bring different elements together into his own unique work.)
One of the most important ingredients to Zappa’s work is his sense of humor. Many fans first got into his work because of his ribald songs, but his humor was sharp and witty as well. In an early part of the documentary where we see how Zappa’s work developed, he explains, “It always seemed to me if you could get a laugh out of something, that was good, and if you could make life more colorful than it actually was, that was good. So any artist or individual who worked in those two directions was doing something good.”
For many fans, humor was the Trojan Horse that got people into Zappa’s much deeper music. A lot of fans got into the funny songs first, then they can eventually appreciate his deeper, more complex compositions.
“Like [French composer Edgard] Varese would use sirens and other kinds of crazy percussion, I think Zappa was using humor in a similar way,” Winter says. “Sure, he used it to connect with an audience, he liked performing for audiences, he liked to laugh and he liked to hear audiences laugh. But I also feel he used humor like an instrument, that he really used it to evoke responses in the listener like he would use an actual instrument.”
For many fans, humor was the Trojan Horse that got people into Zappa’s much deeper music.
For generations of fans, Zappa had a big impact on our lives, not just musically, but in our worldviews as well. He bluntly, and refreshingly, told the truth, and he encouraged many to be politically active and aware. Watching old interview footage of Zappa, he’s still right on the money about many things, and he was eerily accurate in warning us about the country’s hard turn to the right.
Winter says, “I think that anyone growing up who was really conscious of Zappa, he couldn’t not impact you. The things about him that I find influential are certainly his wit, his living a life that was equally devoted to making art that mattered to him, but also being connected to the world around him, the politics around him, and being active. I find that’s very uncommon, and that’s the way I’ve always tried to live.
“This idea that if you’re too vocal or if you have too much of a political awareness that your art will somehow be written off,” Winter continues. “He really ignored that completely and did what mattered to him and his values, and I find that very impressive. I grew up loving very similar kinds of things, things that influenced him, like Ernie Kovacs, I’ve always loved Edgard Varese, Stravinsky and some of the musicians that influenced him.”
“He hated hippies, he hated the NY art scene, he was openly antagonistic towards anywhere he saw pretention.”
Winter didn’t just want to look at Zappa the artist; he also wanted to look at the man. And he was indeed a very complicated guy. One thing that becomes clear is that Zappa’s art was the most important thing in his life, and a lot of other things got pushed to the wayside. As former Zappa musician Ruth Underwood explains in the documentary, “I think he was so single-mindedly needing to get his work done,” and she also called him “a walking mass of contradictions, but he was very consistent with those contradictions.”
Frank called the musicians who performed his music “trained monkeys,” but Underwood added that Zappa “had great feelings for us. He was a passionate man.” He just clearly had a hard time expressing those feelings to his employees and his family. (Moon Zappa was famous for recording the song “Valley Girl” with her father because Frank was a hermit in his studio, and she was trying to come up with a way they could spend time together.)
In trying to capture such a complex puzzle of a man, Winter says, “Everyone is a person, everyone is a human being, and I was really interested in finding his emotional inner life. Mike Nichols, the editor, and I, did a lot of work on the archive to hunt that material down and to craft a story primarily from that material. That was really the agenda, the narrative agenda, such as there was one, was mining the media for personal, intimate, and sometimes abstract ways into his character.”
Zappa’s work spans decades, and he can also be seen as a precursor to the punk movement, even though he hated movements. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that he was a precursor to punk,” Winter says. “Zappa embodied a lot of the attitudes that grew into the punk movement in various forms. He was anti-establishment, but very politically aware. He was extremely maverick, he was hyper-liberated and there was a complete extended middle finger aimed at all times with Zappa long before a punk band showed up. He also grew out of a lot of things that led up to punk, like the Beat period.
“Other artists that preceded Zappa, like Lenny Bruce, Burroughs, Kerouac, Ken Kesey, they had a similar kind of maverick, hyper rebellious attitude towards the establishment and society,” Winter continues. “What I found very pre-punk about Zappa was he was completely defiant of all of the prevailing movements of his day. He hated hippies, he hated the NY art scene, he was openly antagonistic towards anywhere he saw pretention.”
The documentary also shows Zappa’s skills as a businessman. From the get-go, when so many artists didn’t pay attention to the business side of things, Zappa was always aware that the music biz was full of thieves. Back then, it was unfashionable to be a musician and a businessman, but as Frank says in the documentary, “People were living in a dream world. How did they expect to earn a living doing their music if they didn’t have some idea that the people who were there to distribute it were only there to steal from them?”
When Zappa finally left Warner Brothers and formed his own label, Barking Pumpkin Records, he found a way to thumb his nose at the industry, and make a pile of money pursuing his fiercely independent vision. As Gail recalled in the documentary, the Barking Pumpkin mail order company made a million in sales its first year, and they only had to sell a quarter of the records they’d have to sell at a major to make money.
“It was DIY,” Winter says. “A lot of the stuff that they printed and sent around were almost pre-fanzine fanzines.”
Thinking about the last four years, I’ve often caught myself thinking that we need Zappa now more than ever. I also catch myself thinking he tried to warn us about what was coming, and in our current upside-down world, a lot of his music fits right in.
“Concentration Moon”-Mothers of Invention, We’re Only In It For the Money album (1968):
“I think he was very prescient,” Winter says. “He had his finger on the pulse in many ways. He was fully engaged with the times around him. He was very bright and very interested in issues, but he was also very concerned about personal liberty.” Like when Zappa took on the PMRC, the government organization who tried to censor rock music, Frank “was very aware of the Constitution, and he was aware of what was being eroded.”
Frank Zappa’s appearance before the Senate Commerce Committee, Sept. 19, 1985:
Frank Zappa has always had a loyal, hardcore fanbase, and thankfully his music hasn’t skipped a generation. It’s wonderful to learn he’s got a new generation of younger fans that love his work, and Winter feels, “It’s actually getting stronger with this generation. My elder son is 22, he discovered Zappa completely on his own, he’s of the YouTube generation. They don’t take in their media in chronological order or by virtue of genre. They’ll check out Freak Out and Yellow Shark in the same sitting, two pieces of work from completely different periods of Zappa’s life that are radically different, but it’s all Zappa.”
So even with Zappa not wanting to be remembered, his life’s work has held up remarkably well, and Zappa, Winter’s documentary, is a great document of his life and times. When asked how he would define Zappa’s legacy today, Winters says, “I think that, at the moment, he’s certainly beloved as a great icon in the general rock world. He’s considered one of the great 20th-century classical composers by pretty much any classical musician you speak to. He’s truly revered in that world. But I also think his legacy stands as a titan of 20th-century popular culture in terms of his political and satirical persona, and I think that’s substantial.”