When Alex Winter first caught Frank Zappa on a 1978 episode of Saturday Night Live, the then 13-year-old could tell there was more to the iconic singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist than he had previously imagined.
“It was my own awakening to Zappa being so much more than a mustachioed, freaky-looking, rock guitar player,” says Winter.
The future Bill and Ted star and documentarian had previously only heard the musical virtuoso’s popular tunes. But then, for the first time, he was experiencing Zappa’s humorous and political sides on the late-night sketch comedy show, and was captivated.
After college, Winter says, he really began to understand Zappa musically. He no longer saw Zappa, best known for satirical singles like 1979’s “Dancin’ Fool” and 1982’s “Valley Girl” as a mere rock ‘n’ roll musician, but as a brilliant composer who transcended genre.
In 2015, when Winter and his production partner, Glen Zipper were considering their next project, it occurred to them that there had never been an adequate documentary made of Zappa’s life. So the duo set to work on what would eventually become the most comprehensive chronicle yet, ZAPPA, which opened this weekend.
In order to realize their ambition of creating an epic story about a multi-faceted creative and political provocateur, they’d first need unlimited access to the late icon’s family trust and archival material.
So that year, Winter approached Zappa’s widow, Gail, requesting permission to open the vault and make use of all the unreleased music, films, projects, interviews, and concert recordings — many of which had never been seen before.
He won her over with the pitch that he wasn’t interested in making the standard music doc or biopic. He wanted to produce a film about making art in Zappa’s time.
Zappa would be the ideal subject because he was an independent artist decades ago — before virtually anyone could just upload their computer-generated tracks to YouTube, SoundCloud, or Instagram and get major attention. The fact that Zappa was so active politically was also important to Winter.
“I expected her to say, ‘No,’ says Winter. “But what she did say is, ‘The story that you want to tell you wouldn’t be able to tell without the vault material because there’s not enough media out there that would tell that story. That’s what you’re going to find down in the basement.’”
Thus began a five-year odyssey to parse that media out, preserve the endangered materials, and ultimately make the film.
First Winter and his team needed money. They launched a Kickstarter campaign targeting Zappa fans around the world that in raising $1.25 million broke funding records for a documentary-related project. They spent the next two years spending much of it on the painstaking process of preserving and archiving the materials before they could even begin shooting the film.
Its title, ZAPPA, may be simple, but its portrait of the prolific artist — told using archival media and interviews with those who knew him best, like Gail (who’d die in 2015) and several of his longtime musical collaborators, like Mike Keneally, Ian Underwood, Steve Vai, and Pamela Des Barres — demonstrates both his complexity as a musician and as a man.
The film does much to make the case that the avant-garde artist — who issued over 60 albums (fusing elements of rock, pop, jazz, classical, and even comedy) with the Mothers of Invention or solo, over his 30-year career — was just as ahead of his time politically.
Audiences will see him railing against authoritarianism and censorship in his music, interviews, and even when testifying before a U.S. Senate committee, in the mid-’80s, opposing the placement of warning labels on albums deemed to have “explicit content.”
Zappa would lose the battle, as Parental Advisory labels soon became commonplace. But he’d win the war in places like Budapest and Prague, in Eastern Europe, where his controversial music, smuggled in from the West, arguably played a part in inspiring a generation to resist Communist control and peacefully transition into democratic governments.
The film shows Zappa coming to Prague amid great fanfare shortly after its 1989 revolution — he was even asked to become its culture minister by then president Vaclav Havel — and Zappa’s final concert performances there, shortly before succumbing to prostate cancer in 1993.
In his time, Zappa also pushed for voting rights, urging young people to exercise their fundamental democratic liberty with messaging on his album covers, registration booths at his concerts, and a series of Public Service Announcements — years before Rock the Vote made such ads cool.
“He had an amazing life,” says Winter. “He wasn’t just an artist in an ivory tower. He was very actively engaged with the times in which he lived — from the sexual revolution through to the onslaught of authoritarianism.”
As tempting as it might have been, Winter avoided cannonizing Zappa with a saintly portrait of the artist and radical.
To paint the more comprehensive picture of Zappa that he envisioned, he had to include some of the musician’s very human shortcomings.
Zappa, like most people, was a walking contradiction: The devoted family man at home flagrantly flaunted his affairs on tour in the media. The artist that so many musicians lined up to collaborate with was rarely warm or friendly to any of them. Zappa was outwardly hostile to the press, but also very committed to them, offering lengthy interviews and even asking them questions. The man, who was dying of cancer, was filmed smoking cigarettes in his final interviews.
“He’s a human being and all human beings are quote-problematic-unquote,” says Winter. “But Zappa, being both a public figure and very outspoken, wore his peccadillos on his sleeve. So that made it easier for me, well before I decided to make a doc about him, to have a pretty good sense of who he was.”
Who the “mustachioed, freaky-looking, rock guitar player” from the ’70s was at his core was anti-authoritarian. So it’s exciting to imagine the late artist and revolutionary inspiring a new generation of teenagers to fight for democracy through this film.
“We’re in this inflamed crisis moment,” says Winter, “so any time that someone comes along from the past that said anything political, it’s easy to say, ‘Oh, they’re a person for these times.’ In Zappas’ case, it’s inarguable that he was highly anti-authoritarian, anti-fascist, and extremely concerned about the rights of citizens to take part in the democratic process—and that is exactly the crisis we’re sitting in at this very moment.”