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Frank Zappa – Roxy, The Movie, CD + Blu-ray (2015)

Frank Zappa – Roxy, The Movie, CD + Blu-ray (2015)

A true rock genius is revealed in restored Blu-ray of a vintage performance.

Studio: Eagle Vision EV8335219
Cast: Frank Zappa & The Mothers
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 screen, 1080p HD, Color
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1; PCM 2.0 stereo
TrackList: Something Terrible Has Happened/Cosmic Debris; Penguin In Bondage; T’Mershi Duween; Dog Meat (The Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat); RDNZL; Inca Roads; Echidna’s Art (of You); Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?; Cheepnis-Percussion; Cheepnis; I’m The Slime; Big Swifty; Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen’s Church); End Credits: Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow; Father O’Blivion
Bonus Tracks: Pygmy Twylyte; The Idiot Bastard Son; Dickie’s Such An Asshole
Length: 116 minutes
Ratings: Audio: ***1/2     Video: ***1/2     Overall: ****:

Certainly Frank Zappa’s music and career can be safely described as weird. His unique approach to rock, orchestration and avant-garde set him apart from his peers. The music was different and bent the rules of genre association and instrumental arrangement. Without reluctance, he would shake up the band lineup to bring a fresh perspective to his changing vision. One aspect of his musical career was film. 200 Motels (with The Mothers, Theodore Bickel and Ringo Starr) was a cult classic and introduced rock and roll to the contexts of art imitating life. In 1973, Zappa and the latest incarnation of The Mothers filmed four shows at the Roxy theatre in Los Angeles. When they looked at the footage, there was a problem. The music was not synchronized with the pictures. Despite the ensuing efforts to remedy the situation, Roxy never saw the light of day. Zappa’s untimely death in 1993 seemed to eliminate the prospects of rescuing this project.

More than forty years later, Roxy The Movie has been restored. Under the auspices of the Zappa family, John Albarian has taken on the formidable task of weaving a technically coherent movie out of what appeared to be a missed opportunity.  With mixed results (audio and video), this footage has been integrated into a vibrant concert film. Backed by a stellar band, Zappa shines as a composer, arranger and performer. As the movie begins, FZ explains the technical glitch (“Something terrible has happened”), then launches into a terrific talking blues version of “Cosmic Debris”. His charisma is palpable as he exudes hipness. George Duke plays masterful keyboards and tandem drumming (Ralph Humphrey, Chester Thompson) are joined by percussionist Ruth Underwood. There is a jazzy ambiance, with fusion effects, especially on cuts like “Penguin In Bondage”). Zappa instills a street funk (prevalent in 70s fusion music) that is punctuated with spacey electronics and zany syncopated jams. A trombonist (Bruce Fowler), saxophonist/flutist (Napoleon Murphy Brock) and bassist (Tom Fowler) round out this impressive band.

Zappa is a “rock conductor” leading the band with animated hand gestures. At one point he “conducts” the audience! But he is also a talented, compelling electric guitarist. His solos (including wah-wah pedal) are searing. His stage presence is engaging, but he will take a cigarette break in a chair on stage. The band is excellent and navigates through a variety of complicated, extended songs (“I’m The Slime”, Big Swifty”, “Be-Bop Tango/Of The Old Jazzman’s Church”) with verve and daring. The music is vampy and hook-driven at times, and avant-garde as well. There are orchestral flourishes and zaniness. And Zappa is everywhere, joining the ensemble for a percussion jam, interacting with the audience and directing the camera operators. The film ends with a comical “attempted studio take” of “Don’t Eat The Yellow Snow”).

Roxy The Movie is a definitive musical statement. The instrumental diversity, tight arrangements and stage humor comes across in a genuine fashion. Considering the compromised source material, the restoration is somewhat impressive. The PCM 2.0 stereo mix is sharp and detailed. Unfortunately, the “lossy” 5.1 mix sounds flat and doesn’t expand or intensify the acoustics. The Blu-ray transfer is good, but the band members (in dark clothing) seem to get lost in the background. There are some camera details that are erratic (due to the original footage). Despite the technical flaws, this is a great film!  There’s also an accompanying standard CD of the soundtrack.

—Robbie Gerson

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