Review by Sean Boelman
When one thinks of musicians that are frequently misunderstood, no name should come to mind as quickly as Frank Zappa. Wonderfully capturing the artist’s eccentricities and preserving his legacy, filmmaker Alex Winter’s Zappa is an excellent biographical documentary, avoiding many of the issues that often plague the genre.
In the movie, Winter presents Zappa’s life story with a particular focus on his hugely eclectic music career. As is the case with most music documentaries, this is going to be best enjoyed by those who are already familiar with the subject, although the film isn’t overly dependent on nostalgia to have an effect.
At over two hours, the movie runs longer than most in the genre, but Winter is able to justify the length. Zappa is by no means a conventional rock star, and so while there are a few moments that focus on traditional behind-the-scenes drama, there is also a lot more to his story than that, the result being unsurprisingly compelling.
There is something to be said in the film about self-expression. One of the things that made Zappa so well-known is that he was so unabashedly himself, and he was going to do whatever he wanted without concern for whatever anyone else thought. And this unorthodox personality really shines through in the movie.
One of the things that stands out about Winter’s approach is that he approaches Zappa not only as a musician, but also as a songwriter and composer. Winter isn’t just concerned with the music that made Zappa popular — he is also interested in his more obscure and experimental work that has the tendency to fly under the radar.
The film features interviews with people who worked with or studied Zappa, but the true star of the show here is the use of archive materials. Like many musicians in the era, Zappa kept a pretty extensive collection of footage from his life and career, and Winter is able to assemble it into a narrative quite well.
This archive footage takes a few different forms. Some clips are interviews with Zappa himself, poetically discussing the philosophy with which he approached his life and work, and others are recordings of performances that allow the audience to see these ideas in action. The balance that is struck between the two allows the movie to stay pretty consistently entertaining.
Zappa works both as a loving tribute to the musician and one of the most effective uses of archive materials in recent memory. Music fans looking for a documentary that is more than nostalgia will find themselves pleased by this portrait of the unconventional man.
Zappa hits theaters and VOD on November 27.