DVD: Roxy: The Movie

RosyDVDSTUDIO: Eagle Vision | DIRECTOR: Frank Zappa
RELEASE DATE: 10/30/15 | PRICE: DVD $20.98, Blu-ray $25.98
BONUSES: Three extra songs
SPECS: NR | 95 min. | Music performance | 1.77:1 widescreen | Dolby Digital

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


Frank Zappa left behind quite a legacy of music — several dozen albums of rock, jazz, R&B and neo-classical compositions and performances. No matter how great his records were, his live shows were always better because he clearly enjoyed toying with the minds of his listeners and he also left spaces in his shows for virtuoso turns by himself and the members of his band.

Roxy: the Movie demonstrates this perfectly, as we witness Frank’s serious musical side as well as his playful and silly moments of indulgence (often involving stoned male and sexy female members of the audience). It doesn’t hurt matters any that the incarnation of the Mothers seen here is arguably the best ensemble he ever worked with (many FZ fans — this one included — would vote for this iteration of the Mothers as their hands-down favorite).

The performance seen here is an amalgam of shows that took place at the Roxy in L.A. on Dec. 8-10, 1973. The film makes its debut four decades after Zappa had it shot because of a seemingly unsolvable technical glitch. Editor John Albarian explains the problem in the liner notes in this two-disc (1 DVD or Blu-ray, 1 CD) package: a “drift” occurred in the synch between image and sound that made it impossible — until the advent of computer editing — for the two to be put together properly.

Albarian also explains the camera set-up: four cameras were used, but the one intended to capture the widest shots (the proscenium angle) produced footage that was out of focus. Thus Roxy truly registers as a “you are there” experience, since it is mostly composed of film shot by the cameramen who kept close to Zappa and the band members (the majority of the film seems to be comprised of images shot right next to a musician or from an oblique angle above the band).

frank_zappa_roxy_the_movie_2015No insult to Albarian and the others who worked long and hard assembling this lost film, but the key aspect here is the sound. Zappa was a perfectionist in this regard and so the music is beautifully captured throughout. The songs featured here provide a good introduction to his trademark fusion of different musical genres, and the musicianship is sublime throughout — the seven band members each get their moments in the spotlight, but the combined sound created by the group is just fantastic (equaled on DVD only by the set found on the Eagle Vision release A Token of His Extreme, which features the same band).

Two of Zappa’s “greatest hits” (“Cosmik Debris,” “I’m the Slime”) and one of his most entertaining verbal rambles (the intro to “Cheepnis,” in which he discusses’ Roger Corman’s It Conquered the World in delightful detail) are featured. But the main emphasis is on instrumentals. All seven members of the band shine on “The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat,” but the most memorable solo moments occur when George Duke sings and plays a lounge-y version of “Inca Roads,” and the group’s drummers (Ralph Humphrey, Chester Thompson) and percussionist (Ruth Underwood) go to town on the rhythm track of “Cheepnis.”

The package’s sole supplement is a good one: three more songs, including a version of Pygmy Twylyte” that finds Pamela (I’m with the Band) Des Barres dancing with and seducing the male band members, and “Dickie’s Such an Asshole,” Frank’s ode to Nixon (which oddly never appeared on a Zappa album until 1988).

Given the bravura work done by the band, one finds it wildly uncharitable (to say the least) that their names are hidden away in the packaging. (Frank himself listed them on the back cover of Roxy and Elsewhere, the 1974 album that came from this set of concerts.) Their names aren’t on the back cover of the package, nor are they listed on the first two panels of the gatefold, or the next four panels of the inner gatefold. Instead, their names are mentioned once in a no-frills brochure tucked away in a pocket that one finds by mistake. And, to make matters worse, they aren’t identified with their instrument (the coyly worded billing is “Starring Frank Zappa and the Mothers, existing of…”).

So we have the odd moment near the concert’s end where guitar-master Frank acknowledges that he’s written a piece (“Be-Bop Tango”) so complex that he will sit the number out. But the top-notch virtuosos Duke (organ/vocals), Underwood (percussion), Humphrey (drums), Thompson (drums), Tom Fowler (bass), Bruce Fowler (trombone), and Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax/vocals) do a superb job with the genre-bending instrumental. You can’t keep a good Mother down.


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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”