Photo credit: Kerry McNabb and Frank Zappa in ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo credit: Yoram Kahana. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Immensely influential and straddling rock and classical genres, Frank Zappa was an individual in the truest sense. Alex Winter’s new documentary,  Zappa, presents an engrossing portrait of an artist whose brilliance cannot be overstated.

Drawing on a rich array of previously unseen footage, the film traces Zappa’s career from his early days discovering the music of composer Edgard Varès through to his cancer diagnosis and final work with the Ensemble Modern. It is a story firmly grounded in the events of the 20th century – situating Zappa within the larger context of the Cold War, Manson murders, Reaganism, censorship and fall of the Soviet Union. While the narrative is fairly straight forward, the accompanying visuals are anything but, especially in the first half of the film. Rare archival footage in frenetically interspersed with black and white footage of old horror movies, historical news footage, and claymations by Zappa collaborator Bruce Bickford. As the documentary progresses, more airtime is given to interviews with Zappa’s wife, Gail, various members of the Mothers of Invention and Zappa himself, but the film never loses its artistic flair.

Zappa zealots may be surprised to learn that the film features very little of the prolific artist’s rock catalogue. Instead, Zappa, is focused on exploring the man behind the music. This is not a story of sex, drugs and rock & roll, but rather of a workaholic who was single-minded in his pursuit of perfection.

While Zappa doesn’t exactly paint the artist in a positive light, particular critiques are notably absent (for example, his relationship with women – particularly groupies – is largely glossed over).  There are numerous references to his objectively poor treatment of many of the members of The Mothers, who he allegedly referred to as his “dancing monkeys”.  Archival footage shows members discussing how they know their time in the band is temporary, and that they will not be the final iteration of the group – used until they were no longer fit for purpose.

Zappa was an exacting boss, demanding perfection from his players. Lengthy rehearsals were the norm, as he tried desperately to capture the quality and complexity of music he had imagined in his mind. Nevertheless, stories of his intensity are balanced with praise and ultimately, it seems like those who worked for him were so in awe of his abilities that they were willing to accept his faults. In a particularly touching moment, former band member Ruth Underwood breaks down, describing the letter she sent Zappa prior to his death, thanking him not just for what he had done for her or for music, but for the world.

Clocking in at just over two hours, Zappa is not exactly short, but it still manages to leave the audience wanting more. Overall, it’s an engaging, visually exciting portrayal of a complex individual who embodies the old “admire the art, not the artist” adage. The largely unseen archival footage and quality of interviews should make it an appealing option for Zappa newcomers and devotees alike.