It is nearly impossible to summarize the career of Frank Zappa. His diverse, abstract approach to rock represented a creative tempest with a near disregard for commercial success. A self-taught musician and composer, he embraced alternative compositional formats and thematic overtones, including avant–garde, dadaism and electroacoustic. He meshed these ideas into a rock/jazz idiom that drew on classical music and r&b. At the core of his work was a critical attitude toward popular culture, education and organized religion. He advocated freedom of speech. There are many who are unfamiliar with his music, but remember his testimony before Congress attacking the Parent Music Resource center and their efforts to label music based on content. His legacy included epic rock concept albums, numerous classical orchestral pieces and electronic experimentation.
Perhaps Zappa’s greatest impact on culture was as the leader of the Mothers of Invention. The original lineup combined blues, doo-wop, psychedelia and societal humor, creating the epic double LP, Freak Out. At the time this was the only double album in rock besides Blonde On Blonde. The Mothers became a cult sensation and their popularity grew. Incredibly Zappa cut loose the entire band, and recruited jazz players like George Duke and Max Bennett. Then to everyone’s surprise, he brought Turtles (a pop band) lead singers Howard Kaplan and Mark Volman into the mix. The resultant alchemy changed the face of rock. He composed for orchestras, developed movies and became an excellent guitarist.
Frank Zappa – Freak, Jazz, Movie Madness and Another Mothers is a detailed, extensive look at a specific four-year artistic period of a true rock iconoclast. Director Tom O’Dell interviews several key band members of the “Second Mothers”, including George Duke, Mark Volman, Aynsley Dunbar and Ian Underwood, as well as 200 Motels director Tony Palmer. There is a preponderance of rare photos and film footage in color and black & white. The documentary (at 150 minutes will thrill Zappa fans, but may be tedious as an introduction to the legend for others) goes into depth, examining the transition Zappa undertook, re-forming the Mothers of Invention, recording solo albums and the near-disastrous 200 Motels saga.
Second Mothers band members Underwood, Duke, Volmer and Dunbar describe the creative driving force of Zappa in the studio and onstage. Duke emphasizes a deep respect for Zappa’s “genius” at piecing together ensemble music and pioneering rock/jazz fusion. Volmer and Dunbar (who describes the addition of Flo & Eddie to the ranks in amusing fashion) share anecdotal information about the formation of the band. The film dissects classic albums like Hot Rats and Chunga’s Revenge. Zappa is a natural, driven leader who thinks outside the box, but seeks collaboration. There is limited vintage footage of the band. But there is some live footage of John Lennon and Yoko Ono performing with Zappa. A rare Zappa interview features his distaste for Lennon’s apparent “pirating” of this for his own album.
Of course what is missing is Frank Zappa. Without the sanction of his estate, there is no insight from the artist himself. The lack of source material reduces the power of the story. Tony Palmer does a stellar job reconstructing the chaotic frenzy of 200 Motels. While the historical significance of Frank Zappa is prominent, the monotone narration impedes the flow of the movie. The PCM stereo sound captures the interview dialogue crisply. The video quality of these interviews is also good. Both audio and video of music is adequate for this sort of compendium.