Alex Winter’s “Zappa” is an odd, occasionally jarring documentary, but it wouldn’t make sense for it to be anything else. The film about the iconoclastic musician Frank Zappa sometimes feels like an autobiography from beyond the grave, sometimes playing like a heartfelt tribute and sometimes adopting Zappa’s rhythms and style to be purposefully disorienting. It’s a Zappa-esque concoction — which, of course, is exactly what it ought to be.
The movie was originally scheduled to premiere at South by Southwest in March, but it was pushed back when that festival was canceled. It now opens in theaters and on-demand on Nov. 27 after a special theatrical event on Nov. 23; instead of being the first film in a busy 2020 for Winter that also included directing the HBO documentary “Showbiz Kids” and acting in “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” it’s the last.
It’s also the most hyperkinetic and jittery of Winter’s documentaries, which have also included “Downloaded,” “The Panama Papers” and “Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain.” The film is restless and playful and a bit assaultive, especially in the early going, as it sketches the story of a kid who grew up in the California desert town of Lancaster and wasn’t interested in music until he heard the forbidding strains of experimental French-American composer Edgard Varese’s “Ionisation.”
While many members of Zappa’s family and his band are on hand to reminisce about the famously driven, often cantankerous and always demanding musician and composer, much of the story is told through materials from the Zappa’s personal archives, to which Winter had access. A vault that contained everything from his master recordings to 8mm movies he made as a child, it yielded material that has largely remained unseen, along with audiotapes that allow Zappa to, essentially, narrate the first part of the film himself, despite his death of prostate cancer in 1993.
This is the part of the movie that jumps with nervous energy, as it chronicles Zappa’s childhood, early experimental work in Lancaster and move to Los Angeles because, he said, “It’s very difficult to do the kind of things I wanted to do in a small-town environment.” He started doing those things in mid-1960s L.A. when he formed the Mothers of Invention and began making music that was nicely summed up by the title of his first album, “Freak Out!”
A meticulously composed but seemingly freeform blend of rock with blues, jazz, psychedelica, avant-garde classical and a dada spirit, Zappa’s music was wildly adventurous and, at times, fiendishly hard to play — and, say the musicians who worked with him, he didn’t always have much patience for the people he was asking to play it.
The movie feels impatient in the early going, too, mostly in the way it treats Zappa’s music. Where many music docs present full songs or big chunks of songs, “Zappa” is built around snippets. Much of Zappa’s music was fragmentary, building large compositions out of little pieces, but hearing those pieces out of context doesn’t give you a real sense of what his long, complex, fractured compositions were like — although concert footage made up of snippets seems somehow Zappa-esque, too.
The film gets less chronological and more thematic as it jumps through the 1970s and into the ’80s. At the same time, it slows the frenetic pace down to go into detail about Zappa the composer and Zappa the cultural critic. In a way, the final hour feels like the movie is winding down and exploring his philosophy and outlook, taking detours to offer insights into his character and his work: “Valley Girl,” his collaboration with his teenage daughter Moon Unit and the biggest hit he’d ever have, “really came out of Moon wanting to spend time with her dad,” says L.A. scenemaker Pamela Des Barres.
Despite a side trip to explore Zappa’s role as a critic of the Parents Music Resource Center, the group of Washington, D.C. women who slapped warning labels on recordings they deemed offensive in the ’80s, “Zappa” is more interested in the Zappa who had written orchestral music before he ever wrote rock ‘n’ roll. The fullest, most robust performances we see in the film are not of Zappa playing his own music but of a two-piano version of his composition “The Black Page,” a performance of his work by the Kronos Quartet and a full-orchestra version of the “Yellow Shark” concert by the German new-music group Ensemble Modern. (This last performance marks a return to the weirdness and energy of the film’s earlier moments.)
“All I want is to get a good performance and a good recording of everything I ever wrote,” Zappa says at one point in the movie, and it’s clear he didn’t get that as often as he would have liked. The final interview clips, when he was suffering from cancer and open about how much it took out of him, can be terribly sad, but the film’s confrontational honesty is, once again, in keeping with its subject.
What “Zappa” does, essentially, is build a case for its subject as “an American experimentalist like Harry Partch or Sun Ra” — the difference being is that he also had a couple of hits, which brought experimentalism to a whole different place.
At the very beginning of the movie, we see Zappa on stage in Prague in 1989 at a concert to celebrate the fall of the Iron Curtain. “This is the first time I’ve had a reason to play guitar in three years,” says Zappa, who was ailing at the time but also had a message to deliver to the Czech audience: “As you confront the changes that will take place, please try to keep your country unique.”
As “Zappa” makes clear, Frank Zappa spent his whole career keeping himself unique, often to his credit and occasionally to his detriment. Winter’s movie does the same, in a way that does justice to a guy who’s not easy to do justice to.