Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was a musician, composer and a social commentator, but this is an incomplete way to describe this unconventional human being, who believed in pushing boundaries and questioning the status quo in music, society and politics. For instance, more than once Zappa thought of running for the American Presidency, but the idea of staying in the White House for 4 years was a “grim” proposition and he did not run for it.
While Zappa did not run for Presidency, he kept his political interests alive. One of the last live concerts Zappa played was in 1989 in Czechoslovakia to celebrate the country’s Velvet Revolution. Zappa was invited by Michael Kocab, a rock musician and newly elected member of the Czech parliament and a fan of Zappa’s music. The Velvet Revolution was the peaceful transition of power where the Soviet troops withdrew and the country saw an end to a 40 year Communist regime. Zappa met with Vaclav Havel, the new President of Czechoslovakia, who was a well-known literary figure, an anti-communist and a non-conformist like Zappa.
So who exactly is Zappa? How did the Cold War period shape his childhood and beliefs? What made him tick? Where did he learn to play music? Why did he create the music he did? Why did he fight against censorship? Why did he fight for the “principle of the thing?” as he once mentioned in Arsenio Hall’s show? Why did words matter as he famously argued on a famous Crossfire interview? All the missing pieces of who is Zappa and what propelled him to create his music and why he wanted to “annoy people with his music,” became clear after I watched director Alex Winter’s new documentary “Zappa.” Winter had rare access to Zappa’s vault, which is a storehouse of everything the musician created from his home made films, music, interviews and other information.
Despite his prodigious musical output Zappa did not make “hit record” as Alice Cooper says in the film. Cooper says Zappa was “really afraid to make a hit record.” But, there is one record Zappa made with his teenage daughter Moon Zappa that became an instant hit. This was Valley Girl released in 1982. And, the rest is history as they say.
Zappa was a self-taught musician, who grew up in a home where music was not appreciated. He experimented a lot with his music and music compositions and established his own independent record label. He pushed boundaries and “was a walking mass of contradictions” as one of the musicians put it.
Zappa’s music was banned, he was denounced by the Church and yet his influence persisted and continued to persist. What was it about Zappa that drew people to his music and his way of thinking and doing stuff? If you have never heard of Zappa or Zappa’s music then Winter’s unconventional documentary “Zappa” on this brilliant and uncommon music will fill that void for you.
Zappa released on Nov 27, 2020 in theaters and is available on demand.