Music documentary

Unboxing this year’s must-see musical documentary

Lyrics by David Tomisich

Analysis of Alex Winter’s view of one of the most provocative minds in music.

What does it mean to be successful as a creative individual? Does success involve using your creativity to write a plethora of easily accessible FM radio rock tunes, with the goal of selling countless records and racking up shitty cash?

For a group like the Eagles, of course. Or is it about using his literary talents to inscribe messages of social cohesion in his music, with the aim of providing a semblance of collective progress? For an artist like Bob Dylan, certainly.

For Frank Zappa, however, success simply meant writing and performing music that he found fulfilling.

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Alex Winter’s latest documentary, simply titled Zappa, explores the extraordinarily vast life and production of a complicated and obsessive genius – one who vehemently rejected the very idea of ​​commercial success and displayed a scathing cynicism towards the capitalist forces that drove industry from music in the United States.

With access to a cache of never-before-seen live concert footage, interviews and home videos, Winter carefully weaves these bits of material throughout the two hours, being careful not to rely too heavily on one resource rather than one. other. The result is perhaps the most raw portrayal yet of a hugely talented yet seemingly aloof man who has dedicated his life to one cause: music.

The film begins with footage of Zappa’s last rock performance in 1991: “It’s the first time I’ve had a reason to play the guitar in three years,” the ailing composer tells a raucous crowd of Czech fans. recently released. of Soviet domination. A cult figure in the Eastern European nation, Zappa vehemently asks the crowd to “keep her unique”: a mantra that has defined her very aesthetic.

The way Winter chooses to unfold the documentary chronologically is fitting, given the number of twists and turns that have defined much of Zappa’s professional career. The film details the success and then the inevitable implosion of his first band, The Mothers, as former band members recall the sometimes unrealistic expectations placed on them by their near-dictatorial bandleader.

Guitarist Steve Vai, who played with Zappa in the early 80s, recounts a sentiment shared by many former colleagues: that they were just “tools” used by the composer to achieve the endless flow of his musical designs. internalized.

Not that Zappa would categorically deny it either. In an archived interview, he openly admits that he writes music so he can hear his own ideas interpreted. And if audience members happen to like it, that’s even better.

As an avid Zappa fan, I couldn’t help but feel that the film glossed over the contributions of some band members, especially those who played on classic records such as Apostrophe (1974), Sheikh Yerbouti and the rock opera in three parts Joe’s Garage (both 1979).

Keyboard pioneer George Duke, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and vastly underrated multi-instrumentalist Terry Bozzio are all just mentioned in passing, making you wonder how Zappa’s mid-70s production would have sounded without the tactful virtuosity these musicians brought to the game. mix.

However, Winter does well to point out Zappa’s status as one of the world’s first truly independent musicians – not only in the musical sense, but also when it comes to the business side of things. As someone who harbored a bottomless contempt for the manipulative and deceptive practices of the American music industry, Zappa decided to found his own eponymous record label in 1977.

The composer’s rejection of the entire philosophy that drives the industry is palpable: “The very idea of ​​selling a large number of items in order to determine quality is what is truly repugnant.”

You may be wondering why I refer to Zappa as a composer, rather than a songwriter or guitarist – even a cursory viewing of the documentary would do well to illustrate Zappa’s deep passion for composition. avant-garde orchestral. In fact, the majority of photographs featured throughout the feature show Zappa smoking a cigarette while hunched over sheets of manuscript paper.

Winter’s portrayal of the final chapter in Zappa’s life is by far the most moving part of the film, as he comes to terms with his cancer and impending mortality. All the while he is determined to bring some of his most important compositional inventions to life, using the talents of the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

The inclusion of footage from these rehearsals is, in my opinion, the zenith of the documentary. Though grizzled and visibly frail, Zappa conducts the orchestra with an electric dynamism that many conductors would struggle to muster. One can’t help but be surprised by the dissonant yet iridescent qualities not just of the music, but of the man himself.

Zappa is now showing in Australian cinemas. Learn more here.