Blu-ray Review: Zappa

STUDIO: Magnolia | DIRECTOR: Alex Winter
RELEASE DATE: March 2, 2021 | PRICE: DVD $16.96, Blu-ray $17.99
SPECS: NR | 127 min. | Documentary | 1.78:1 widescreen | stereo

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  1/2 | Audio  | Video  | Overall  1/2

Fans of Frank Zappa are bound to love the documentary Zappa—and be profoundly disappointed at the same time. Here for the first time, the late musician’s voluminous archives have been opened for audience consumption, and while director Alex Winter, he of the Bill & Ted movies, makes good use of these treasured recordings, home movies and a slew of oddities of various media kinds, he also skimps on much of what his fans want to see: performances of Frank and the Mothers of Invention and his other bands making music.

Because of much-needed restoration, Zappa took years to put together, and kudos to Winter and editor Mike J. Nichols for that. What’s here is choice, culled from over 1,000 hours of material: old 8mm family movies in which Frank added clips of science fiction films; behind-the-scenes footage of the goateed and chain-smoking Zappa pontificating about music, culture and “the industry”; extensive footage of Frank going to bat against Tipper Gore and other D.C. wives’ crusade to label music; and stuff rom Zappa’s later life—he died of prostate cancer at the age of 52 in 1993—highlighting his interests in classical and experimental music and his search to find musicians worthy or accomplished enough to perform his compositions. Yes, Zappa did take his music quite seriously and thought highly of himself, at the same time.

Missing here, however, is recognition of some of his best and, yes, seemingly more popular efforts, including Overnight Sensation, Apostrophe and Sheik Yerbouti. And along with their glaring absence comes a limited spotlight on his amazing collaborators such as Jean-Luc Ponty, Adrien Belew, George Duke, Ike Willis, Napoleon Murphy Brock, Aynsley Dunbar, and Peter Wolf. Thankfully, occasional associates Flo and Eddie (Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman), longtime friend Captain Beeefheart (Don van Vliet) and guitarist Don Preston log in some screen time.

The Baltimore-born, temperamental and often difficult to work with Zappa was indeed the Pied Piper of scores of great, innovative musicians, but viewers of the documentary will have to find comfort with a limited list of interviewees, including guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, percussionist Ruth Underwood, late wife Gail Zappa, Alice Cooper and super groupie Pamela De Barres. Conspicuously absent for recent interviews are Zappa offspring Dweezil, Moon, Diva and Ahmet, which may have something to do with an ongoing family rift, although Ahmet, who controls the Zappa business and library, takes a producer credit here.

Perhaps it’s hard to encapsulate a career of an artist who released over 60 albums over 30 years—and another 50+ since his death. There other documentaries out there on Zappa, led by 2016’s Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words. Maybe watching that documentary with this film and listening to several hours of Zappa recordings will paint a more complete portrait of this complicated man. And then again, maybe not.

Buy or Rent Zappa

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.