Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention – [DVD]

Friday, 16 January 2009

Biographer Billy James says it best right off the top of this documentary presentation outlining the initial appearance of Frank Zappa and his Mothers Of Invention in the 1960s when, in a very matter-of-fact and incontrovertible tone, he states, “Zappa brought something different that no other artist has. Music would not be the way it is today if it wasn’t for Frank Zappa.” Without trying to sound redundant, truer words were never spoke. There is no quadrant of pop that Zappa – as a composer, as a songwriter and as a businessman – has not touched; he beat The Beatles to the punch when it came to monstrous orchestration in pop (presumably, that’s the reason why he spoofed the cover of Sgt. Pepper on the cover of We’re Only In It For The Money) and the practices of that are continued by producers including Andrew Weiss and Jimmy Jam, on records that can be found all over the pop and rock genres. The sweeping jazz swells that Zappa was notorious for (check “Peaches En Regalia”) manifest in the cinematic scores of Danny Elfman, his sarcastic wit is aped and dipped in platinum by acts like Queens Of The Stone Age, Eagles Of Death Metal and Ween and certainly, whether intentional or not, the underground and indie realms of modern rock have enjoyed the use of business practices (small, boutique labels with enormous distribution capability) for which Frank Zappa laid down the template; without being facetious, the composer’s presence is felt everywhere yet, for reasons that remain hazy, most of his story has remained untold. That’s the problem that In The 1960s seeks to remedy, however it could be debated at length how successful it is.

Right from the beginning, the film goes to great pains to portray Zappa as the proverbial man come from nothing – no background, no taste for the popular music of the time and no clear vision in mind, but a rapier wit and a better-than-healthy drive to break through with a very different voice and idea that he wanted to articulate.

It sounds noble and idealistic to think that said voice was received well right away, but that wouldn’t be true. In fact, the film does begrudgingly admit that there were several obstacles and tribulations for Zappa before the war in Vietnam began to pick up including line-ups coming together and petering out, poverty, a stint in jail and a thoroughly mixed reception on the Steve Allen Show. In a word, it was bleak.

Then comes the epiphany: there was something good to come out of the Vietnamese conflict: the singer and guitarist for a band called the Soul Giants both got drafted and so both positions were open. Zappa was hired and quickly promoted to the position of chief songwriter, guitarist and singer and, with Jimmy Carl Black on the drum kit, an embryonic incarnation of The Mothers Of Invention was born.

As this film happily expounds at this juncture, The Mothers came along at the perfect time in the perfect place. In Hollywood, The Freak Scene was all the rage and Zappa suddenly found himself with an arena receptive to his ideas and recognized it right away. Unlike so many of the other bands that would come out of the time (The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and more), Zappa always had one eye on his bottom line and was very interested in commercial success – but on his own terms only. He played the system (using CBS’ proclamation that The Mothers had no commercial potential as a battle cry to attract a legion of fans specifically interested in bucking the system) and manipulated it in such a way that divided everyone else – every sound, every personality around the band fell on one side or the other of loving or hating them – and made sure they got a hell of a lot of spotlight.

From there, the film dives into the musical approach that the band was using at the time and the results of it. Freak Out! was released in 1966 and established the template that Zappa would use for the next twenty years: humor and satirical lyrics set against a form of experimental music comprised of equal parts blues  and neo-avant-classical sound creation and expressionism a la Edward Varese. Even now, the critics that sound off on Freak Out! in this documentary don’t exactly know what to make of the album or the style in which it was made but what does get asserted is that, while Zappa never considered his sound perfected at any point, that first album was the jumping-off point for a set of themes he would play with for the duration of his career. Unfortunately, while the DVD tries to digest all of that, the limited success of the footage forces it to press on quickly into the sessions that yielded Absolutely Free.

Through it all, the recurring sentiment is on of confusion at what Frank Zappa was ultimately trying to achieve; was he trying to shock? Repulse? Turn people on? Freak them out? Break freaks out onto new levels of exposure? Because that was never made clear by Zappa at any point, it’s never made clear here and that’s the stumbling block that ultimately is the downfall of the film; at a certain point (and this has happened so often in documentaries about the singer/composer’s work that it could easily and justifiably be called the ‘Frank Zappa Trap’) the proceedings devolve into variations on the same situation punctuated by the words, “He did it and it didn’t make any sense at all, but it worked – every time” and such rejoinders leave a lot to be desired.

So what does In The 1960s have to offer? To be fair, the film is a pretty decent expository introduction to Frank Zappa’s work that will make the uninitiated want to buy some of his records in order tto see what’s actually going on in it, but little else. Perhaps that’s Zappa’s greatest, enduring legacy – he was happily commercial for his time (going against the grain is always attractive to taste-makers) and, in order to rotate audiences through his fan base, he only ever allowed himself to tell enough of the story and reveal enough of his motives to bait the curious.


Frank Zappa Official Homepage

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