Not that this should come as much of a shock to anyone, but there's a certain cultural elitism when it comes to centers of higher education, probably no more apparent than if your degree is in one of the arts (I happen to be a musician). If you're a classical musician, there's no finer pedigree than Juilliard, for jazz you might want to go for Berklee or North Texas. So you may "feel my pain" when I tell you I have been greeted with stares of disbelief when I've divulged that my undergraduate degree came from the supposedly lowly University of Utah. This despite the fact that, in the classical realm, Salt Lake City is home to arguably the finest (and inarguably one of the finest) large choral ensembles in the world (The Mormon Tabernacle Choir), and certainly one of the most august "state" symphonies in the nation (whose conductor during my childhood, Maurice Abravanel, used to regularly snatch Grandes Prix du Disques from such better-known baton wielders as Leonard Bernstein). And for the disbelievers of the jazz/rock variety, I usually only need to mention players I grew up around and idolized (they were a bit older than I am), like the incredible Mahavishnu keyboardist Stu Goldberg or, perhaps more famously, the Fowler Brothers of Zappa fame, to get at least a modicum of respect. When I mention that the Fowlers' father was the longtime head of the University of Utah Music Department (though he had departed by the time I was there), I at least get a glimmer of understanding that my college of choice wasn't completely insane.
It may sound odd that someone growing up in the relatively insular climes of Utah would be so well-versed in Frank Zappa's music, but for those of us who were acquainted with the Fowlers (Tom plays bass, Bruce trombone, Walt trumpet), following the exploits of at least this particular iteration of the Zappa band was a little like old home week mixed with a potent dose of "we knew them when." Though I personally first got to know Zappa's music from the mid-1970s on, I then started working backwards through his vast catalog, discovering a wealth of provocative and frequently insane (and insanely funny) material that the master had recorded in the 1960s. This superb two hour-plus British documentary gives an in-depth look at the formative years of Zappa's startling career in the music business.
There are some naysayers who allege Frank Zappa was simply a goof, an oddball provocateur who was a passably good guitar player who hired some brilliant musicians to act out trippy scenarios, both recorded and staged for live performances. To them I say, bunk. Zappa is every bit the American compositional innovator that Charles Ives or, perhaps more a propos to Zappa, Harry Partch was. If Zappa's symphonic pieces never quite rose to the level of his idol Edgard Varese, they nonetheless show an astonishingly intelligent grasp of both traditional orchestral techniques as well as musique concrete, which, once you mix in the regular doses of rock, blues, doo-wop and R&B that populate most of Zappa's recorded oeuvre, makes Frank easily one of the most singular artists to break through in that most musically innovative of decades, the sixties.
This brilliant analysis of Zappa the man and Zappa the musician portrays Frank's rather humble roots, and is filled with some very fun archival footage, some of it licensed from the Zappa Family Estate. You therefore are party to film clips of one of the William Asher Beach Blanket movies as you learn that one of Zappa's first successes was placing a surf-rock composition of his in the film, as well as an even more astounding segment from a 1963 Steve Allen Show, where Zappa was the "musical" guest, playing a bicycle. Yes, a bicycle. Allen, a brilliant composer and musician in his own right, seems perfectly at ease with the young upstart, and actually seems to "get" Zappa, no problem. Of course, both Allen and Zappa were well-known for their anarchic senses of humor, so that might have helped.
Also on hand here are several members of the first couple of versions of the Mothers, notably Jimmy Carl Black, Zappa's first drummer (Black sadly passed away just a few weeks ago). While some of the pontificating "experts" just seem ridiculous at times, Black's reminiscences are the most pungent of the interview subjects in this film, probably because he knew Frank the longest (he actually met Frank in a pre-Mothers rock group). There's both admiration for Frank's many musical achievements as well as a not very thinly disguised bitterness over some of Zappa's personal and business decisions that color Black's commentary. The firing of the Mothers in 1969 seems to be an especially sore subject, and not just with Black. Zappa and his business manager Herb Cohen presented the band members with a bill for $20,000, saying they had been losing money for six months, when the band had been playing sold out large venues during that time and had been expecting some bonus pay. Then Zappa allegedly said, "But I'm going to just call it even, you don't owe me anything, and you can have the amps you've been using." Black isn't the only Mother calling that interchange not only painful, but logically insupportable.
But that's probably just another example (as if his albums weren't example enough) of the complexities that made up Frank Zappa. A self-taught musician and composer who may have suffered from a major case of over-compensation (compositionally speaking, at least), Zappa carved out perhaps the most completely unique niche in sixties "rock" (if, again, you can call what he did with the Mothers rock), an era in popular music that simply exploded with innovation and surprise. While Frank may have occasionally felt himself the victim of that very same educational elitism I mentioned above (and delighted in putting conservatory trained musicians through the gauntlet), he certainly did not ultimately let it hinder his compositional methods. Zappa also backed up his music with a wary and subversive sociopolitical element, something that spills quite generously into such compositions as "Flower Punk," a somehow more adult perspective than the run of the mill rock band evinced in those halcyon days of yore. This documentary shows that Zappa's achievements were not the fluke that some claim, but were the result of a very inquisitive and insightful mind that sought to combine genres in heretofore unexplored ways, the marketplace be damned. Suzy Creamcheese would be proud.
Frank Zappa arrives in a generally excellent full frame 1.33:1 transfer that has good color and saturation, if occasional compression artifacts, in the contemporary interview segments. The rest of the archival footage varies drastically in quality, from very good (The Steve Allen Show clip), to pretty poor (some of Zappa's "home movies" of various concerts). Some of the archival footage is in black and white, as you might expect.
Don't get your hopes up about hearing a ton of unedited Zappa music here. The DD 2.0 soundtrack is full of snippets, unfortunately none of them last longer than a few seconds to about a minute. That said, the soundtrack is excellent, with full range fidelity and no anomalies. Both the voiceover narration and the interview segments are completely clear. No subtitles are available.
Unedited interview segments are offered, as well as text biographies of a lot of participants in the documentary, including several members of the first two versions of the Mothers.
Zappa is an American icon(oclast), and anyone interested in the evolution of 20th century music needs to visit at least a few of his seminal recordings. This documentary does a first-rate job of detailing the first decade or so of Zappa's professional life, and manages to make both the man and the musician accessible, if not completely comprehensible. Highly recommended.
"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet