The last few years have seen a shake-up of the music documentary format, having moved on from the traditional talking heads and (arguably navel-gazey studio tours). While this one doesn’t attempt to reinvent any wheels, it does present a frank (pun fully intended) and entertaining account of a complex artist and composer.
Full disclosure, I’m not someone with a huge knowledge of Frank Zappa’s music. I’d say I was Zappa-curious, if anything. But, that’s a sign of a great documentary: to feel engaged with the subject, even without much prior knowledge.
Like Asif Kapadia’s Senna, it takes you on a journey through career highs and lows, controversies and untimely death without a voice-over.
It’s testament to filmmaker Thorsten Schütte’s use of archive footage that I was hooked from the first soundbite. Of course, it certainly helps that Zappa’s performances and interviews are a gift that keeps on giving. There are moments that reaffirm (as if it were needed) how Spinal Tap absolutely nailed its observations about musicians.
Highlights include an extraordinary early TV performance with a very young, and clean-cut Zappa playing a bicycle on a light entertainment show, and being interviewed by a Pennsylvania State Trooper (who is also a fan) in 1981.
The film intercuts interviews with tour footage and performances from each era of his career including Muffin Man, Jazz From Hell and recordings he composed with the London Symphony Orchestra at The Barbican.
One thing that struck me was just how erudite he was. Although at odds with the political ideologies (including communism) that were projected onto him, he was an astute cultural commentator who spoke with clarity and wit, that went beyond his oddball reputation.
This screening took place on the night of the US Presidential election, Zappa may be long gone, but his musical legacy and observations on American culture are still very pertinent.
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