Frank Zappa was never what one would call a commercial rock star. Instead, he was a fringe dweller, influential as Hell but lacking the mainstream appeal that translated into consistent hit records and jukebox singles. While his work in the late '60s is often considered the foundation for much of the psychedelic and acid to come, he also worked within the realms of jazz, classical, R&B, and the avant-garde. Nowhere was the latter more in evidence than when he decided to start his own record labels. Named Bizarre and Straight and co-created with then manager Herb Cohen, the sonic boutiques would eventual house some of the most unusual acts in the history of music: Wild Man Fischer, the goofy groupie experiment The GTOs, the rather refined acapella group The Persuasions, and Alice Cooper, back when it was the name of the entire band. As with many examples of outside the norm vision, there was more promise than profit, and Zappa's own personality clashes with many of the musicians involved left the labels little more than an example of vanity gone gonzo. Still, for nearly three hours, this DVD overview of the man and his attempted merchandising of the unusual crafts a compelling and insightful history.
Focusing, chronologically, with the start of Zappa's Bizarre and Straight labels and running through the various band signings and artistic/business decisions made, From Straight to Bizarre is an excellent post-flower power testament. Using contemporary interviews (no big names, except for Pamela Des Barres and Kim Fowley) and lots of archival footage, as well as actual musical clips (a rarity in this kind of unauthorized overview), there lots of dirt dished. Sadly, Zappa is not here to defend himself and few of the 'experts' employed to explain his point of view make the man out to be much more than petty and preoccupied. But he doesn't bear the worst of it. Another late great, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart) is accused of everything from brainwashing and cult like activity to failing to give collaborators and band members proper due (respectfully and financially)- and those are just the nice things said. With a narrator providing a determined, distant timeline and lots of fun to explore experiments, everything comes together in one fascinating fact film.
You've got to feel sorry for the dearly departed - especially those who become the stuff of musical myth and legend. No matter his faults, either as a businessman or a band mate, Frank Zappa's importance to the late '60s music scene cannot be overemphasized. A genius at both composition and playing, as well as a master of manipulating the media to solidly side with his perverse POV, his quirks never threatened to outmaneuver his abilities. This was one talented mofo, so it makes sense that corporate big wigs would want to tap into his unusual underground world of weirdoes and freaks. Zappa disliked the hippy movement, choosing instead to focus on the socially marginalized and misunderstood. He truly hoped Bizarre and Straight would be an outlet for his idiosyncratic intentions. Most considered it a folly. Today, such a situation is par for the PR course. Every major league member of Billboard and ITunes cons their corporate fathers into giving them control over their output. While Zappa used Bizarre and Straight to keep himself and The Mothers of Invention relevant, he desperately wanted his "discoveries" to be as successful. Well, you know what they say about the best laid plans...
From Bizarre to Straight is best when it is playing by the book. As it walks us through the inspiration for the start-ups, as well as the initial brushes with an uninterested and disruptive Zappa, we get the feeling that this will be more than a Behind the Music puff piece. Indeed, when Sandy Hurvitz, aka Essra Mohawk is approach to be part of this new venture she is thrilled. However, when production on her debut LP grinds to a standstill, bad feelings become embedded. Even worse, Zappa allegedly left her high and dry, relegating the overseer duties to a deputy (Mothers' keyboardist and instrumentalist), Ian Underwood. His style could best be called "polished demo." There's a lot of this in From Bizarre to Straight - our icon getting instantly excited about someone (Wild Man) or something (an all girl group made up of non-singers) and then dropping it somewhere during its development. This approach left a lot of bad feelings, none deeper than between Zappa and Fischer. Wild Man has argued that his mentor promised a lot more than he delivered (Check out his own documentary, Derailroaded, for more) and others make it clear that, when it came to instant gratification, their hero had ADD.
But the worst is indeed saved for the gear grinding Captain, his demented take on Delta blues made even more manic by the way he is described. Now fans have long heard rumors about a rift between Zappa and Beefheart, most of it centering on the lack of support from the former once the latter came onboard as a Bizarre labelmate. But we soon discover that Van Vliet was as domineering and demanding of the Magic Band as he expected Zappa to be with his career. Some of the stories border on the horrifying, a deranged Beefheart pounding on the piano while drummer John French (aka Drumbo) transcribed what he was playing. These snippets then became the backbone for the certified classic Trout Mask Replica, which was recorded in odd, obtuse spurts. The Magic Band laid down ALL the backing tracks - ALL - in one massive six hour session. They could do this because Beefheart rehearsed them mercilessly. By the time of the album's release (to, again, little commercial acclaim), things within Bizarre and Straight had become unsettled. As with many stories like this, the vision drifted and eventually faded away, leaving many ideas incomplete and even more never begun. Throughout all of this fascinating film, one thing becomes abundantly clear: when Zappa took an interest, things at least started off well. How they finished becomes the stuff of myth - both music and movie.
Offered in a clean crisp, if cinematically pointless 4:3 aspect ratio, From Straight to Bizarre looks pretty good on DVD. Sure, the archival material suffers from age and technological issues, but the interviews look pristine and well put together. Details are also prevalent, from the bright dye in Des Barres hair to the aging face of Mr. French. While a 16:9 presentation would have been much better (the image does stretch well on HD TVs, no matter the OAR), this is still a slick, well put together product.
Since music is not the main reason for this overview, the decision to stick with a standard Dolby Digital Stereo mix is perfectly acceptable. The Q&As come across with crystal clarity and the occasional song or concert segment has a nice amount of bass and treble. If there is any nitpick, it's the length of the tracks. Wild Man Fischer favorite "Merry Go Round" lasts about 10 seconds. Tracks from Trout Mask exist for the same small time frames. Perhaps it has something to do with rights or performance payments, but whatever the case, a couple of complete tunes would have been nice.
There are a few goodies to be found in the added content. We get an interesting featurette anecdote about life during this particular creative wartime (let's just say that food wasn't plentiful). Equally interesting is a bit on the Persuasions' Jerry Lawson and his work with Zappa after the dissolution of Bizarre/Straight. Along with biographies on the main contributors, it's an interesting collection of bonus material.
There was much more to Zappa's Bizarre and Straight that even the most well versed fan comprehends. Not only were the roster of fringe finds featured, but the musician used his status to support hot button comedians like Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce, and even ventured out into more mainstream rock and roll. Still, it's the freaks and the fascinating flags they flew during their stint under Zappa's tutelage that make this documentary worth seeking out. Easily earning a Highly Recommend rating, there's plenty here for both the newbie and the aging aficionado to enjoy. While one sided when it comes to criticizing the main focus and his friends, the results still resonate as one of the great stories of an icon indulged, and the creative chaos that came from same.