Frank Zappa celebrated at Jerusalem Film Festival

When the composer-producer-guitarist died in 1993 at the age of 52, he left behind him a body of work that would do well to squeeze into three or four lifetimes.

FRANK ZAPPA in ‘Zappa. (photo credit: Courtesy)
FRANK ZAPPA in ‘Zappa.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are few characters in rock history, possibly the entire catalog of musical endeavor, who attract such polemic discourse as Frank Zappa. The divisive side of the man with the famous tuft of facial hair beneath his lower lip, and much more, are explored and elucidated in Alex Winter’s new documentary, Zappa, which is currently available for online viewing as part of this year’s virtual Jerusalem Film Festival (through December 20).
When the composer-producer-guitarist, to mention but a few of his music industry-related and other skills and interests, died in 1993 at the age of 52, he left behind him a body of work that would do well to squeeze into three or four lifetimes.
It is difficult to pin a definitive tag on the man, or his eclectic artistic output, and Winter does not attempt to pigeon hole Zappa, rather he offers us a somewhat chronological run through of some of Zappa’s personal and professional milestones, while shedding light on what made the man tick.
Fifty-five-year-old Winter paid his dues before getting to grips with a man who has been described variously as a rock god, political activist and, some might say, social pariah. Winter’s bio to date includes a welter of documentaries, TV directing and acting. He says he got into Zappa when he saw him perform in a sketch on the Saturday Night Live television comedy show.
That might not have been the best of introductions to the artist’s persona and oeuvre – in the documentary Zappa expresses disappointment with the TV gig – but it got Winter into the hirsute artist’s work and eventually begat a fine piece of film.
While the film is touted as an “in-depth and comprehensive portrait of the legendary Frank Zappa”, considering the overwhelming breadth of the man’s work it is hard to imagine any presentation of Zappa as “comprehensive.” The Internet, YouTube in particular, is replete with footage of Zappa in all sorts of settings, from talk shows to clips of some of his wild and wacky onstage work, and in-depth interviews. Even so, Winter appears to have done a good job at widening and enriching our understanding of what Zappa got up to, both on and off the stage, and what made him tick, helped by being granted unprecedented unrestricted access to Zappa’s music and visual work in his vault at his Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles home.
It is a warts and all portrait that features interviews with quite a few of Zappa’s collaborators and sidemen who speak openly and passionately about his single-mindedness, workaholism and ceaseless pursuit of ever loftier artistic peaks. Naturally, such a driven ethos can demand a heavy price, particularly on family life. We are told about extra-marital sexual sorties about which Zappa does not express any remorse, while what proved to be a rare commercially successful musical project with his daughter Moon only came about after Moon slipped a letter under her dad’s studio door half-jokingly, reminding him of her existence.
But while former Zappa band members, and other professional colleagues – actually employees – talk about the challenges of working with such a demanding leader, all extol his virtues as a unique artist with peerless gifts. Zappa was a true one of a kind.