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Frank god: inside story of a musical genius

Wide-ranging documentary explores a maverick who was never in hoc to The Man

19 February, 2021 — By Dan Carrier

Frank Zappa in Zappa – the documentary is a treasure trove of mid to late 20th-century culture

ZAPPA
Directed by Alex Winter
Certificate: 15
☆☆☆☆

FRANK Zappa is impossible to pigeon-hole. The American musician’s work was such that it defined being placed in any specific genre – but this wide-ranging documentary goes some way to understanding what lay behind his maverick genius.

Packed with interviews and archive footage – Frank kept a huge library of his work – we are shown the inspirations that formed the bedrock of his incredible music and theatrical stage shows. His father worked for the Defense Department in a chemical weapons plants, and then after moving west, as a metals expert for the US Navy.

It meant Frank grew up in smalltown America: it suggests this created a yearning for a different world to immerse himself in.

He discovered rhythm and blues, shocking his neighbourhood by putting together a combo that featured black and white musicians.

From an early age, he enjoyed chemistry experiments that involved blowing things up, making films, but above all, composing music.

It is telling, when you consider his later output, that he became an accomplished composer of orchestral pieces as a teenager.

His drive, he says, is to get down the music he can hear in his head, record and then play it to himself. If others want to listen to them too, that is a nice bonus, but not the aim of his work. It means he was never in hoc to The Man, never driven by selling records or having hits. It gave him a sense of artistic freedom.

That they were successful merely gave him the money to do more. An example is how he hired the London Philharmonic to recreate a piece he had written. Costing £10,000, he did it for his own pleasure, he said.

Zappa’s archives provide extensive footage and are a treasure trove of mid to late-20th century culture.

Talking heads also offer a reasoned take on his work – though some stand out much better than others: one figure is an utterly ridiculous character that makes you weep that Zappa had to deal with brain-fried hippies tagging along for the ride.

Others are marvellous. Percussionist Ruth Underwood is intriguing: she studied at a prestigious New York music college, but after watching Frank live, she decided she didn’t want to sit at the back of an orchestra and hit her triangle a couple of times per piece. She joined the Mothers of Invention and travelled the world, exploring the limits of her instruments under Frank’s careful gaze. The Mothers had a shifting line-up with Frank at its head.

As one contributor puts it: “He could be cold and aloof with those he called his trained monkeys”, but overall he comes over as a well-meaning genius driven by an insatiable urge to create. Passionate about his art and his family, the legacy of this ground-breaking musician is comprehensively covered.

Even if you don’t like his hard-to-define music – Rock? Jazz? Classical? None of the above? – Zappa’s immense contribution deserves a considered and well-produced piece, and this film provides it.

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