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Frank Zappa: Freak Jazz Movie Madness & Another Mothers
I'm not a hardcore Frank Zappa fan but my memories going back a good decade and a half are littered with Zappa's absurd yet meticulous brand of music that bravely and effortlessly swung between jazz, rock, orchestral, doo-wop and whatever genre you can think of. I'm a big fan of Zappa's early career with The Mothers of Invention.
We're Only in It for the Money is one of my favorite albums of all time, even though it requires a certain frame of mind for me to enjoy it appropriately. I used to play the Mothers' first album Freak Out! to annoy my wife to no end while playing backgammon. The fact that she stayed with me after that is a testament to our relationship.
That being said, Tom O'Dell's overlong, over detailed and amateurishly executed documentary Freak Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers (Which shall be referred to as Freak Jazz from this point on in order to prevent me from getting carpal tunnel while typing the whole title) is only for the most hard-core of hard-core Zappa fans, who might even find themselves playing this DVD in the background while looking for overpriced and not rereleased, underlined, Zappa LPs (A little nod to High Fidelity there).
The documentary, using the loosest sense of the word, covers Zappa's career from when he disbanded the original line-up of Mothers in 1969 up until around 1973. Even though I'm a bigger fan of the work of the original line-up, I must admit that his second band is responsible for some unforgettable tracks, including Peaches En Regalia from the improvisational jazz LP Hot Rats, which is one of my top five Zappa tracks of all time.
Freak Jazz offers a lot of interviews from this line-up, and while some of them can be quite educational, most of the information given can be easily found after a five-minute search on Wikipedia. The editing becomes almost hypnotically predictable after around ten minutes, cutting back-and-forth between sloppily videographed interviews, vintage concert footage and Ken Burns-style animated photos. O'Dell's amateurish style, full of iMovie-style scratch effects and overuse of white flashes give the film the aura of a student project.
In fact, even though I sat through the DVD while paying attention to the visuals for the sake of professionalism, once the viewers pick up on the voices of the handful of interview subjects, they can play it in the background as if they're listening to a podcast and not really miss much. Just switch back to the video once you hear Zappa talking or playing, because that's where the golden vintage footage lies.
I couldn't find much information about exactly when this video was produced but it's either at least ten years old, or if it was made more recently, the makers hadn't heard of any advancement in A/V technology for the past decade. The video is presented in 4:3 aspect ratio for some reason and the interviews look like they were shot on Mini-DV. A lot of the interviews are not lit properly, causing sections of the image to blow out. The silver lining is that the vintage footage is transferred pretty well.
The Stereo mix is adequate enough to clearly hear the narration and the interviews, hence the recommendation to perhaps listen to it like a podcast. If you're looking forward to listening some Zappa tracks in full, you have to go somewhere else since the narration barely dies down long enough to listen to any of the music.
On The Road: Mother Memories: This 7-minute featurette is not advertised on the DVD artwork. It contains extra interview footage from Aynsley Dunbar, George Duke, Jeff Simmons and Mark Volman. This is essentially a long deleted scene.
We also get some text Bios.
If Freak Jazz was only around sixty minutes or so, it could have offered some vital information to lukewarm Zappa fans. But in this overlong state, one would have to dig in and extract a minor amount of useful information out of this behemoth. Yet as I mentioned before, the over-detailed approach might attract some hard-core fans. The video presentation is near abysmal for modern standards and the DVD is authored so poorly that they forgot to add text next to some of the buttons. You basically have to guess the right option if you want to get back to the main menu.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com