I Saw A Film!
Zappa! I may not be the world’s biggest fan, I’m mainly focused on his first ten years of output (and especially with the original Mothers of Invention), but consider this man’s artistic accomplishments. He basically, following on the shoulders of blues and experimental music greats from Johnny “Guitar” Watson to Edward Varese, created a pop-music concrete, largely of sound collage, and progressive rock. In the meantime, being a lover of the absurd, he fashioned stage antics to be performed with the ever increasingly intricate musical scores. Most folks who think of Zappa just love the curse words and “don’t eat the yellow snow” stuff and don’t really think too deeply about how much effort and devotion this artistry took.
The documentary is done very nicely, lots of art, lots of collage, lots of interviews (though No Jimmy Carl Black (the Indian of the group) he appears in footage of course). How this poor California kid, hooked on monster movies and Super 8 film-making, turned himself into a maven of rock and experimental and, even later, a bit of pop music, is still mysterious, but his mettle definitely has much to do with it. In parts, Zappa is hard to take. He’s an armored ever vigilant individual. He was not a collaborator, though he aided Beefheart immensely, his efforts were mainly selfish and definitely devoted to creating what he wanted to create. A dictator of art.
One great story from the start is getting sent up to jail for producing a playful and totally fake “sex tape”, a recording only – that had no actual sex on it – but still got him put out of business by the powers that be in FREE America of the early 60s (a long hair in town, even if it was shorter than the Beatles). This kind of event (repeated in the 80s on Jello Biafra, also in California) is galvanizing and goes a long way to explaining a life-long negative attitude with authority. Loud, at times crude, and ever unconcerned about what you think or feel about his work (in fact, his belief is that you need to be shocked to wake up! Not an uncommon artistic idea). It’s not hard to imagine today this world of squareness and conformity (I mentioned Jello Biafra’s bust), we still have small town conforming church attitudes. (A country friend of mine responded once to my description of a Reverend Horton Heat show that it sounded like something he’d need to bring a gun to. I didn’t say that that struck me as something Mussolini might have said!)
Part of Zappa’s genius was in his ability to find wonderful people to create his artistic vision with. His management skills are what I’m mainly interested in. The original band, The Mothers of Invention, was a troupe, a sort of otherworldly conglomerate of characters and antics that provided a whole world of amazing composed shows. And for the fans, a whole avenue to explore of artistic and entertainment magic.
The musicians for their part forgive him. They suggest his dictatorial narcissism is what was needed to get the process done. Ian Underwood as well as Ruth Underwood and Bunk Gardner are interviewed about the early band. Zappa’s lack of affection for just about anyone is touched on. Gardner says he was only thanked with a handshake one time in four years! It’s hard to imagine that kind of human being – especially when it’s remembered that he had very little money to pay these people. What was Zappa offering beyond his armored artistic drive? I need a psychologist to explain it. Without these people we wouldn’t know Zappa. Under the shoulders, hoisting up, any star/artist of this caliber are an army of such dedicated people. I had read that at some point Zappa went back to the old tapes and removed the Mothers of Invention and rerecorded all the material without them. I have no idea if this is true or not, it’s not covered in this documentary. Neither is much about his home life, his rock-star libertine life is touched on but, thankfully not the focus. This focus can probably be explained by this document being prepared by son Ahmet.
Don’t expect a lot of insight into Zappa’s process or a view inside his head. He’s no more transparent than Dylan, though freer to express himself as he spends much less time stoned.
This is running as an early view on Prime for about 7 buckaroonies. If you love Zappa at all, it’s worth a look. You could probably skip the last half hour, it’s mainly about his orchestral work, his opposition to the dreadful Gore-fronted PMRC (gross), and his death. Who needs to see Zappa die. No one.
One of my favorite bits is covering the artwork of the album covers. The work they did to create just the record covers is astonishing. I also had no idea that he was responsible for releasing Alice Cooper!