Frank Zappa suffers from a curious condition in the pages of rock history: His popular work was hard to take seriously and his serious work wasn’t popular. Nearly three decades after his 1993 death, from prostate cancer, at 52, Zappa is remembered politically as a caustic, uncompromising voice against censorship; musically as a genre-ranging polymath, composer, and guitarist; and culturally as an obsession teenage boys traditionally pass through on their way to adulthood. (Guilty as charged.) That’s hardly fair, and “Zappa,” a new documentary by Alex Winter, aims to change things.
Winter, of course, is best known as Bill of the “Bill and Ted” movies, but he has carved out a most excellent second career as a documentarian, lately on the Dark Web and other dire electronic developments. For this project Winter had the OK from Zappa’s heirs — son Ahmet is listed as a producer — and free run of the musician’s immense archives. Frank Zappa was a technophile and a pack rat, and an early video snippet has the man himself giving a viewer a tour through the catacombs. (A tape of a home jam with Clapton? I’d listen to that.)
Zappa is all over “Zappa,” in fact — far more of a living presence than in the typical rock doc. Yet Winter hasn’t made a hagiography. The problem is that it’s tough to figure out what he’s made. Roughly chronological in shape — there’s a charming wealth of home movies from Zappa’s childhood and adolescence — “Zappa” spends much time with the early Mothers of Invention of the mid-to-late 1960s, a good deal of attention on Zappa’s later compositional efforts, and not very much on the middle period for which he became best known. (Winter also short shrifts the largely instrumental albums following the Mothers breakup that to my mind remain Zappa’s best work, with 1969′s “Hot Rats” arguably the man’s masterpiece.) “Valley Girl,” the 1982 collaboration with daughter Moon Unit that was his biggest hit, is mentioned, as is Zappa’s constant touring and recording in the 1970s and ’80s, but the puerile potty talk of, say, “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” is passed over, as is the cozy porno-comedy of tracks like “Dinah-Moe Humm.” That’s what sold, it’s implied, but not what matters.
Instead, through the archives and interviews with musicians who worked for him, “Zappa” builds a portrait of an exacting (if exasperating) bandleader, a wisecracking misanthrope, and a restless compositional mind that saw no borders between the kinds of music he heard, even if lesser mortals — which was all of us — insisted on labels. Rock, jazz, classical, avant-garde, and more poured out of him in intertwined torrents, and David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet (which commissioned a Zappa piece) is on firm ground when he compares the musician to eccentric outsider prodigies like Charles Ives, Harry Partch, and Sun Ra.
“Zappa” also gently touches on Frank’s contempt for the general run of humanity, not just Tipper Gore and other members of the Parents Music Resource Center. He spoke witheringly of his appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” where the cast made fun of his lifelong no-drugs stance. And as the documentary progresses, you see Zappa gradually and wearily accept that the great noises in his head held little interest for the public — which may be why he gave them doggerel instead. “I still write orchestra music, but no one will ever hear it,” he says in a wry late-career interview. By then he was more celebrated for his children, his Capitol Hill appearances, and his friendship with President Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic, where he was greeted like the Beatles arriving at JFK. “Zappa” concludes with a moody and moving live performance of a passage from “The Yellow Shark,” the orchestral album that came out a week before Zappa died. Since then, over 50 further albums have been released. Keep listening, Winter is saying. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what the man did.
Written and directed by Alex Winter. Available for streaming via the Brattle Theatre and on demand. 129 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: language, Claymation nudity)