Will We Ever Be Able to Fully Understand Frank Zappa?

Alex Winter discusses the musician and his new documentary, "Zappa"

December 4, 2020 6:28 am
Frank Zappa
Frank Zappa
Getty Images

As Frank Zappa once said: “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”

His entire career was a testament to that statement, with the multi-hyphenate musician and composer became a beacon of free speech during his rise in the 1960s, the onset of the dark Reagan era, the introduction of MTV and the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. Over his 40-year career, his music not only defied convention, but categories: Was it free jazz? Modern classical? With satirical lyrics and fuzzy guitars, was it experimental rock? He fused mainstream music with avant-garde, multi-instrumental jam sessions and free-form soundscapes unlike any other musician had before. Attempting to classify the artist is a battle among rock nerds, even today.

Zappa was among the first crop of musician to stick it to corporate labels and go independent, setting up Zappa Records, He was also part of the first group of musicians to testify against the law requiring “Explicit Lyrics: Parental Advisory” labels, which were mean to go on selected album covers starting in 1985. He also was at the helm of Rock The Vote, an early voter-registration initiative that is a huge non-profit today.

Now he’s the star of a new authorized documentary called Zappa, which recently premiered as part of the DOC NYC Film Festival and was released on November 27 via Magnolia Films. Directed by Alex Winter, best known for his role alongside Keanu Reeves in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the film features never-seen-before footage from the Zappa vault, which Winter gained access to through Zappa’s wife Gail before she passed away in 2015. 

There is footage from Saturday Night Live in 1978, where John Belushi performed alongside Zappa, or that time in 1971 when Yoko Ono and John Lennon stepped onstage during a Zappa concert to collaborate on a song. There are interviews with musicians and Zappa experts, including Steve Vai, who said, “He always pushed you to do things he knew you could do, but you didn’t think you could.”

Winter spoke to us from his home in L.A. about uncovering audio gems in the Zappa archive, the Bill & Ted reboot and how one musician inevitably changed the world.

InsideHook: Why did you want to do a documentary about Frank Zappa?

Alex Winter: Well, I really felt like he was an extraordinary musician who lived in interesting times. He engaged so directly with his time. That’s what tends to make a documentary worth spending that amount of time on. It was not only about his music or the cultural impact he had, but it’s also an amazing historical story. I like how they intertwine with him.

Why did you start the film with his live footage from a 1990 concert in Prague?

He was a huge figure in Czechoslovakia, in terms of liberation and freedom. They would often refer to rock music as “Zappa music” when authorities would tell people not to say something. His name had become synonymous with freedom.

All that footage is taken from his basement? Did his wife Gail Zappa give you access to the archive?

Yes, it was an unforeseen benefit. I told her I wanted to do a story about Frank, she was the rights holder. She liked the take we had and knew we couldn’t find what we needed to tell the story without that footage. Much of the vault was in deterioration. We used that material to tell the story.

Can you explain why it was deteriorated?

That material is very old. Most of the footage was deteriorated. A lot of it wasn’t, but old film, old video, VHS, fragile stuff that had been down there for a long time. We started a crowdfunding campaign so we could preserve and digitize the footage. It took us two years. It was a huge project.

What footage in the film has never been digitized before? What are we seeing for the first time?

All the ephemera, all the home movies we saw when he was a kid, all the family footage, all stuff at the Garrett Theater, all the footage of interviews with journalists he mostly shot himself when they would come to his house. All the footage had to pass through a preservation process, then we digitized the rest. It was a massive undertaking.

How did you decide what to include?

There was a lot of material to support the facts of his life that we just dug at, until we found it. Most of the facts I knew, others I didn’t. I wasn’t aware how intense his commitment was to politics and cultural affairs: traveling to Russia, I knew he traveled to Prague and met with the president of Czechoslovakia, but he really worked to create better relationships with several countries. It was impressive.

How immense was his influence on politics at the time?

He was a big enough threat that he faced repercussions at the time by the Regan administration and the Bush administration. They basically killed his radio airplay to block his career. He was outspoken. He ran for president not to win, but to get the word out about people to fight back against these autocratic governments. He was at the forefront of Rock The Vote and other voting registration drives at that time in the lobby of his shows, as we know now, in this time we live in, we know how important voter suppression is to autocratic governments. He was vocal about the need to vote and that did not make a lot of people happy.  

Did Frank’s wife, Gail Zappa, get to see the film before she passed away?

No, we hadn’t even gotten financed by that point, she didn’t even get to see the preservation. She died so much sooner than she or anyone else expected. I was early in the crowdfunding process, so it was way before the film was released that she went into hospice and died. It was awful. But once she gave me access to the archive and the Zappa Trust, we went at it and completed the movie.

What’s your favorite Zappa album?

That’s a really tough question. [Laughs.] It’s hard to say. It depends on the mood. For the rock stuff, it’s Hot Rats, for the orchestral stuff, it’s the Yellow Shark. I love the Synclavier stuff. There’s great music across the whole spectrum of Zappa. I love rediscovering music I didn’t know before.

Did he really use humor in his records like its own musical instrument?

For me, he was really conscious of how music made an impact on people. When you are finely attuned to the response, not only auditory, but psychological response to sound and concepts. To me, Zappa was using music to elicit a response from his listeners. It wasn’t because he was a funny guy.

Do we have a present-day Zappa today? Which musicians today carry on his legacy?

To me, it’s hard not to hear Zappa in a lot of music, whether it’s avant-garde, classical or rock. You can’t listen to Al Yankovic, Weezer, Phish or Beck without hearing Zappa. He’s a formidable artist of that era who spread his thread through everything.

Zappa released 62 albums before died and 50 more after. What drove his obsession with making music?

He was just so prolific and liked getting music out into the world. People create at different personal rhythms. There is no good or bad; Kubrick will only make a handful of movies, others will make a lot. Zappa was productive and prolific.

Why did he never want a hit record?

Ian Underwood puts it well in the film when he says it wasn’t in his wheelhouse of interests. He was driven to make music he believed in and satisfied his inner ear. That’s not uncommon for a lot of artists. It’s a personal thing — he was more of an avant-garde composer than a rock musician. I think that it just wasn’t his world. I think he liked his audience, he wasn’t aloof, he was accessible to his fans, picked up the phone and wrote letters to them, but he didn’t want to be made to change his music for commercial purposes.

What do you hope people will take away from it?

I hope people will take away from it what motivated me so much making it: that Zappa is a compelling individual who lived in exciting times and was engaged in it. Whether you like him or not, his story is maddening, sad, triumphant and entertaining. It makes for a great doc subject.

As for your new film with Keanu Reeves, Bill & Ted Face the Music, were you happy with the reception?

Very much! It was nerve-wracking, but we didn’t want to make the fans wait any longer. It was great to see the response. We didn’t know how it would go down, especially with the pandemic. You make comedies to be seen in a theater, a communal experience. We’re happy how it was received, that it reached so far beyond the hardcore fans. It seemed to impact the people who haven’t even seen the other two movies. It was a pleasant surprise.

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