The VH1/VH1 Classic program "Classic Albums" promises in-depth looks at some of the most popular and/or influential albums of the rock era. The producers forgo a fuller career overview (although, let's face it, the network's "Behind the Music" usually took "career overview" to mean "sensationalist view of the artist's soap opera-ish struggles") in order to focus more intensely on an artist's most important output.
Their entry on Frank Zappa's two albums Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe (') seems to be inspired more by a desire to do an episode on the man himself and not so much on the records. They excuse themselves for bending the rules to cover two separate titles by explaining they were made during the same time period (released in 1973 and 1974, respectively) with the same band and in the same style; they were also the albums that pushed Zappa into the mainstream (or at least the edges of the mainstream). Dweezil Zappa explains that both records are ideal entry points to his father's boundary-pushing style of music. Meanwhile, the albums are considered companion pieces are by many fans, who also view them as among Zappa's best. (Rykodisc even bundled them together as a single release in the early 1990s. These days, Zappa Records offers them in their original separate forms.)
But at under fifty minutes, can we really get a comprehensive study of two full-length albums from the master of complex jazz-rock-funk absurdity? Not really. Consider this chapter of "Classic Albums" to be instead a slim highlight reel. Here is a documentary so restricted by time that it's able to quickly marvel at the fact that Tina Turner and the Ikettes provided backup duties on several songs (most famously "Montana"), yet, for whatever reason, can't come around to actually interviewing Turner about the gig, or explaining how the ladies came to meet Zappa, or discussing the anecdote about how when Ike Turner heard "Montana," he walked out after only a minute, confounded by its musical madness.
What we have here is a collection of bullet points: a quickie history of Zappa's rise to cult fame, interviews with those that played with him and those that admire him today, vintage footage of the band playing live, and, in pure "Classic Albums" style, a visit to the mixing board, where Dweezil Zappa deconstructs the multiple layers of the music. It's barely enough to scratch the surface of these complicated musical offerings, and yet it still manages to be rather fascinating stuff. This is Frank Zappa, after all. How could you not watch?
The sound board footage remains VH1's secret weapon in their series, as it's here we learn it's not just the songs, but how they were recorded that makes great albums great. Dweezil and an unnamed engineer* strip away the layers of several tracks, finding the Ikettes over here, a sweet guitar solo over there. By removing a track, the songs change instantly, illustrating Zappa's gift for intricate musical construction.
As Zappa and his band were such a force on stage, the numerous asides to classic live performances help flesh out the image of Zappa as a musical icon. Zappa was a compulsive chronicler of his work, meaning there's a vast library of film and video from which to draw; here, we get but a sampling. We watch in amazement as the band tightly handles the manic compositions in front of a swarm of screaming, grabby fans. We also learn how Zappa would alter the songs while on the road, allowing them to evolve into beasts entirely different from their album versions, a fact which plays into the image of Zappa the consummate artist, always writing, always fiddling. (For modern footage, we also get Dweezil jamming with his new Zappa Plays Zappa touring band.)
Interviews with those who played with him in the studio and on stage provide yet another glimpse of the artist as a genius. Most interesting here is a scene of percussionist Ruth Underwood explaining the daring variations Zappa would take with his compositions. (As she talks, we catch a glimpse of an original manuscript, in Zappa's own pen, frighteningly tidy despite the rush job that went into his scribbling it down.) Underwood then picks up her mallets and blazes through a Zappa tune, later complaining about minor mistakes most of us would never have caught.
I wish there was more of moments like this here, but then, I wish there was more of everything here. (When we're briefly shown an animated TV commercial for Apostrophe ('), or see a claymation video of one tune, we want to scream at the screen, wishing for more information on both. Where did these come from? Who made them? Why? And so on.) A single episode of "Classic Albums" is not enough to cover everything it should, especially when the classic albums on display are two of Zappa's most outstanding. This is a solid entry point for new fans, however, and longtime admirers will enjoy the vintage material.
Video & Audio
The program is a combination of new and archival footage; the new stuff looks great, the older stuff, not so much, although this is understandable, considering aging film stock and interviews captured on 1970s-era video. Overall, it's very satisfactory. Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The soundtrack is offered only in Dolby stereo, which sounds great - but it seems a bit of a letdown. (Why hear someone chatter on about the quadraphonic sound, when we could listen to an example of it instead?) Still, for what it is, it works. Optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles are provided.
...or "Bonum," as they're called on this disc.
The "Bonus Video" collection tosses up some 45 minutes of expanded/deleted scenes and classic live performances. These include: lengthy sit-downs with Dweezil at the mixing board, further analyzing "Dirty Love," "Nanook Rubs It," and "Dinah Moe Humm;" a 1973 performance of "Montana;" the 1976 "Saturday Night Live" performance of "I'm the Slime;" the 2006 Zappa Plays Zappa take on "Camarillo Brillo;" an extra snippet of Underwood discussing the glory days; and a lengthy trip into "The Vault," where all of Zappa's recordings (from 1955 originals to modern digital backups, from audio to video) are kept. All this "Bonum" compliments the feature presentation very well, adding a much needed pinch of extra information and appreciation. (Note: this is all presented in anamorphic widescreen. The older footage - namely the "SNL" bit - has obviously been reformatted, although you can't really tell at all. Huh.)
A discography is simply a series of pages showing Zappa's album covers over the years. No track listings are included.
A page promising DVD-ROM material instead tells you that if you put the disc in your computer, it will take you directly to Zappa.com. Or you could just type in "Zappa.com" into your web browser. Or you could just click here.
This episode may be raisin' it up, but it doesn't quite waxen it down. I'll still call it Recommended to Zappa fans, who will enjoy watching the classic concert footage over and over, and to newcomers curious to learn what made the man tick.
* Eagle-eyed reader Felix Martinez catches my error in calling the guy "unnamed," writing: "The engineer is vaultmaster Joe Travers, who was in fact introduced and an important participant of the docu (especially in the bonus features)." I'm sorry, Mr. Travers, for somehow overlooking your introduction, and thanks to Felix for spotting my goof!