Frank Zappa is perhaps one of the most misunderstood pop artists ever. A composer, songwriter, performer, record producer, actor, and filmmaker, his range covered the genres of rock, jazz, jazz fusion, musique concrète, and classical. In the last four years of his life, he began composing classical works, some of which he recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, which are better known in Europe than they are in the U.S.
Cynical and irreverent, Zappa entertained even during interviews, leaving the interviewer and the audience a little open-mouthed. His gift for words made his responses articulate and expressive of his philosophy of life. For example, interviewer: “Your music sounds like you’re on drugs.” Response: “People aren’t accustomed to excellence.” That is his swipe at the media rumor mill as well as a music industry more interested in making money than in making music.
Despite such responses (referring to his music as “excellent”), Zappa—at least in this documentary by Thorsten Schütte—seems rather humble. For instance, when a reporter asks what he would like to be remembered for, he replies that he has little interest in being remembered, even for his music. “It’s not important.”
In some ways, Zappa (who died in 1993 of prostate cancer) said he was simply an ordinary man who had been married to the same woman for 26 years, had four children, and a mortgage. He didn’t do drugs, and forbid their use on the road (a business risk). He was a good businessman, and although he was exacting in his music, he allowed his musicians (primarily the Mothers of Invention) free rein. That does not mean that his professional career went smoothly; he had numerous conflicts throughout his life that resulted in legal struggles.
Zappa reacted strongly to the censorship of his work by MGM and Albert Concert Hall in London, and testified against Tipper Gore’s proposal for a law putting warnings on record jackets for rock music. He regarded no words or sounds as “dirty”, and poked fun at MGM for editing out the word “pad” from one of his songs about a waitress taking orders for food.
Schütte’s documentary is, just as the title implies, taken primarily from interviews he gave across the years. The film is successful in showing the essence of a musical genius with idiocyncratic views that got translated into a great deal of satire and spoofs on religion, politics, and American culture. I only wish it had been more comprehensive—and perhaps that is something for the future. Zappa and his work are worthy of a full-fledged account of his interesting life and Impressive achievements.
A musician worthy of a better reputation in music and life.