Despite the numerous amount of music documentaries that are made every year, one musician whose story has curiously not been told is Frank Zappa, an artist who is considered to be one of the most innovative of his era.
Given the sheer amount of work Zappa made which includes over 100 albums as well as films and other art, approaching the icon’s story is certainly no easy task and so it’s no wonder it hasn’t been tackled before.
Documentarian Alex Winter (also known for playing Bill in the Bill & Ted series) though stepped up to the challenge, being the first filmmaker with complete access to the famous vault which is home to all of the personal Zappa archives.
Six years and much sifting through archival records later, Zappa has now been released, a film which really delves deep into the legend of Zappa giving you a way into his lively, rich and complex world.
We spoke to Alex about the making of the movie, what it was like working in the infamous vault, and also how the future of Bill & Ted could be female.
Zavvi: First things first, what was your introduction to the world of Frank Zappa?
Alex: I think it would have been his Saturday Night Live (SNL) appearances in the ‘70s. I remember they had a big impression on me. He was a distinct character – he wasn’t just a rock guitar player, he was funny, he was political, his music was strange but also fun.
Sometime later after college I got into his music and began to understand him in my own way, with a broader scope.
Zavvi: So you pitched the idea for the documentary to his widow Gail. That must have been a bit nerve-wracking?
Alex: It was to a degree because Gail was a formidable figure – she had run the independent label for them throughout his career and she was a brilliant woman.
You pitch doc ideas and you don’t often expect to get a yes, so you kind of go in knowing that and if they say no it’s like 25 minutes out of your life and you got to meet someone interesting. I got to go into Zappa’s fabled house in Lower Canyon and so it was a pretty special moment, but I was more intimidated when she said yes!
Zavvi: Yeah – now you have to do it!
Alex: Exactly, and not only did she say yes but she also gave us access to the vault. I took a look at the vault, saw how gigantic it was and there went the next two years of my life just working on the vault – which was a wonderful and enriching experience.
Zavvi: Walking into that vault, which as you say is huge, what was your first impression?
Alex: It’s overwhelming, it really is vast. It was kind of an art project of his, a living conceptual thing he worked on over the course of his life from his childhood. He began chopping up his family movies when he was a kid! His artistic beginnings are in film and he had a very specific editing style which quite informed ours. It was an inspiring thing to see and a window into his world.
Zavvi: For the most part his story is told in his own words using that footage. Did this approach develop after you saw what was in the vault?
Alex: I’d been following Zappa’s life for sometime and it compelled me. So I knew quite a bit about him going in, but the vault of course, it’s so formable it shaped how we made the film.
Hours of audio and video recordings of Frank talking very intimately were hugely helpful to us, but abstract things as well were helpful.
Zavvi: It must have been so exciting discovering all that. Was anything particularly exciting to you personally?
Alex: It was like an embarrassment of riches, there was something exciting every day. I was particularly interested in the era of his tenure at the Garrick Theatre in the West Village when he was young.
He set up shop in this theatre and they just performed there all day, every day. It’s really unparalleled in music history and very experimental.
We were really lucky to find footage from that, but there’s also just great stuff from his life and moving footage too from the end of his life when he was dying from cancer.
Zavvi: That footage is very moving in the film. One thing I liked about the movie was that you also look at his flaws, which you don’t often get in documentaries like this. It’s not just two hours of solid praise.
Alex: I wanted from the beginning to tell an immersive story. That’s the movie I wanted to make and I wasn’t making a movie just for fans, although I also wanted to include them.
But mostly I was compelled by how Zappa, for all of his reputation of being stoic and aloof, really he wore his heart on his sleeve, sometimes to his detriment. If he was in a foul mood, he would be foul. If he was being a misogynist, he would be verbally misogynistic. If he was being political, his views would be very overt.
For a documentary maker that type of person is gold because they are expressive and give people a window into what it means to be human. From the very first time I sat with Gail I said I wasn’t interested in making a legacy music doc and shying away from those aspects. They were actually a big part of what made me want to make the film.
Zavvi: It does help the film stand out. How would you say your perception of Zappa changed during the making of the movie?
Alex: It did change. I think sometimes working on these you get so deep into people’s lives and there often isn’t a revelation. But I’m not looking for revelations, I’m searching for the nuances of the human condition. And what I got was a window into his world, one which was profound.
Zappa was unique and really put his money where his mouth was in terms of his politics. He went up against his own industry, he fought censorship in the senate, he went to Russia – I didn’t know the full breadth of that when I first started and it was very inspiring.
Zavvi: Of course you are also Bill from Bill & Ted. We spoke to co-creator Chris Matheson about the future of Bill & Ted earlier this year and he said whilst he can’t see a fourth film being made, he would love the daughters to get a spin-off.
Alex: I love that idea! It’s been banded about a bit since we finished the film and I think actually they are working on an idea around it, I just don’t know where that’s at.
I would love to see it happen as Brigette (Lundy-Paine) and Samara (Weaving) are amazing, we were really lucky to have them and they were a vital part of making that movie work. It would be a lovely thing to see that continue in some way.
Zavvi: Last year Bill & Ted: Face The Music for many provided light and hope during bleak times. What’s your reaction to that?
Alex: We are grateful that we have contributed any levity and hope during a challenging year. It wasn’t our intention as we didn’t know it was coming when we made the film, but the Bill &Ted movies are always made with sincerity.
They aren’t for everybody but if you do like this world, it’s sincere. We worked really hard on that film for a very long time and we were pleasantly surprised by the response.
Zappa is available to watch now on Altitude Films.