So I went into watching “Zappa,” Alex Winter’s documentary examination of Zappa’s life and work with more than a little trepidation. After all, most of the recent rash of music documentaries have been works aimed primarily at the fan bases of their subjects and rarely make any attempt to appeal to those not already in the fold—great if you are a fan but not so much if you aren’t. Despite this, or possibly because of it, I found the film to be an engrossing look at Zappa and his legacy that nevertheless avoids the mere hagiography that films of this sort run the risk of embracing when not handled properly.
Although the film unfolds in a largely chronological manner, it begins towards the end with footage of Zappa’s last recorded guitar performance, an appearance in the Czech Republic commemorating the withdrawal of Russian troops. Addressing the crowd as they prepared to begin an entirely new way of life, he advises them to “keep it unique,” a maxim that clearly drove him as well. As the film reveals, he first became interested in music as a teenager when he first encountered the works of Edgar Varese, whose rhythmic-centered compositions were often dismissed by naysayers as being nothing but noise. A friendship with Don Van Vliet, the future Captain Beefheart, led him to the blues and he began composing music that would reflect these influences, including working on the score for the legendary Timothy Carey cult classic “The World’s Greatest Sinner.”
Thus began one of the oddest careers in contemporary music, one that covered any numbers of ports on the musical waterfront and which would eventually see him working with everyone from Alice Cooper to the London Symphony Orchestra. By crass commercial standards, his incredible output over the years did not amount to much but from his earliest days, such as an extended six-month stint of concerts that he undertook with the Mothers of Invention in New York in 1967, he attracted a small but devoted cult of fans that would go on to include some of the biggest names in music. Even though his record sales were meager—at one point, Cooper remarks in an interview that he seemed to deliberately sabotage himself to avoid having a hit—he was still well-known enough during his Seventies heyday to have a couple of Top 10 albums and he was invited to host “Saturday Night Live” at the height of the show’s initial popularity in 1978. He even managed to have a fluke hit song when “Valley Girl,” a song that he did with his daughter, Moon Unit, landed in the Top 40 in 1982.