November 17, 2020

A new Frank Zappa documentary from director Alex Winter mines archival footage to examine the musician’s private side

Frank Zappa performing with the Mothers of Invention in ZAPPA a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright ROELOF KIERS. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
“Before we could set about making the film, we needed to preserve a great deal of material from the vault that was deteriorating and in great danger of being lost forever.”
—Alex Winter

By Harvey Kubernik

ZAPPA, the first all-access documentary on the life and times of Frank Zappa was set to premiere at the 2020 SXSW film festival. The Kickstarter campaign for this project was the highest funded documentary in crowdfunding history.

ZAPPA was acquired by Magnolia Pictures in August and will be released day and date on November 27, 2020 in the U.S. Produced by Alex Winter and Glen Zipper. ZAPPA, a film by Alex Winter, is a Magnolia Pictures and Great Point Media and Trouper Production in association with Zipper Bros Films and Roxbourne Media Limited.

With unfettered access to the Zappa family trust and all archival footage, ZAPPA explores the private life behind the mammoth musical career that never shied away from the political turbulence of its time.

Alex Winter’s assembly features appearances by Frank’s widow Gail Zappa and several of Frank’s musical collaborators including Mike Keneally, Ian Underwood, Steve Vai, Pamela Des Barres, Bunk Gardner, David Harrington, Scott Thunes, Ruth Underwood, Ray White and others. Ahmet Zappa is a producer on the film.

A soundtrack album to ZAPPA will be released by Zappa Records/Ume label during November.

Filmmaker Alex Winter is a graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University where he was a film major and a photo minor, taught by Larry Clark, and other instructors.

Winter subsequently founded Trouper Productions, a company that supports his films. In 2019 Winter released two new documentary feature films; The Panama Papers, about the biggest global corruption scandal in history and the journalists who worked in secret and at great risk to break the story and is out now on Hulu, Amazon Prime and Epix in the US. Trust Machine: The Story Of Blockchain, about the rise of bitcoin and the blockchain was released last Fall and is now available on Amazon Prime.

Previous documentary work includes Deep Web, about the online black market Silk Road, and the trial of its creator Ross Ulbricht. The film premiered on the Epix network, opening as the #1 documentary on iTunes and earning a Cinema Eye nomination among several award wins. Deep Web is now available for streaming and VOD. Downloaded is a VH1 RockDoc about Napster and the digital revolution.

Winter’s Showbiz Kids documentary feature for HBO premiered July 14 on the network and is now available through HBO GO, HBO NOW, and on HBO via HBO Max and other partners’ platforms.

The highly anticipated third installment in the Bill & Ted franchise, Bill & Ted Face The Music is now available in theaters and on demand in the U.S. and is continuing to roll out internationally this year.

“It seemed striking to me and producer Glen Zipper that there had yet to be a definitive, all-access documentary on the life and times of Frank Zappa,” explained Winter in the publicity materials provided by Magnolia Pictures.

“We set out to make that film, to tell a story that is not a music doc, or a conventional biopic, but the dramatic saga of a great American artist and thinker; a film that would set out to convey the scope of Zappa’s prodigious and varied creative output, and the breadth of his extraordinary personal and political life. First and foremost, I wanted to make a very human, universal cinematic experience about an extraordinary individual. What helped make this vision possible was Gail Zappa granting us exclusive access to Zappa’s vault; a vast collection of his unreleased music, movies, incomplete projects, unseen interviews and unheard concert recordings. With this wealth of material, and the minimal addition of present-day interviews with Frank’s closest friends and musical collaborators, we built a narrative that is both intimate and epic in scope.

“But before we could set about making the film, we needed to preserve a great deal of material from the vault that was deteriorating and in great danger of being lost forever. So we created a crowdfunding campaign, and were lucky to break funding records for a documentary related project. And thus began an exhaustive, two year mission to preserve and archive the vault materials. When this was completed, we set about making the film.

“Ultimately, ZAPPA is not a retro trip into the past, but a thoroughly modern exploration of a man whose worldview, art and politics were far ahead of their time, and profoundly relevant in our challenging times.”

After viewing a screening of this marvelous and revealing movie, I asked a few literary and music associates, who are all avid Zappa fans, to comment on ZAPPA as well as Frank’s artistic legacy.

“Is it better to have a dream (in the sense of an unrealized goal in the future),” suggests Dr. James Cushing, “or to realize it (in the sense of gratifying a desire in the present)? I think the gratification is better because it leads to further desires, but to have a dream risks being personally frustrated or warped if it doesn’t pan out — the Jay Gatsby problem.

Frank Zappa performing with the Mothers of Invention in ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright CAL SCHENKEL. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Frank Zappa performing with the Mothers of Invention in ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright Cal Schenkel. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“As a Zappa fan since 1967, I saw things in this new documentary that I had never seen, heard music I had never heard, and learned things I had never learned. The home movies are amazingly intimate, and the interviews with Ruth Underwood are enormously revealing and moving. Her piano performance of ‘The Black Page’ is the best I’ve ever heard, worth the price of admission all by itself!”

“0verall I thought it was a great movie that captured the depth, creativity, singlemindedness, intensity, and craziness of FZ,” offers
Alan Watts.

“I liked the generally chronological order, but I found my attention drifting a bit towards the middle, particularly around the parts dealing with the Flo and Eddie band. Perhaps that’s because I find this period his least interesting (IMO, 200 Motels was the worst major project FZ ever did).

“However, things picked up dramatically in the second half,” adds Watts. “I found the content in the remainder of the movie riveting. It captured the most interesting aspects of FZ, with a nice balance of music (guitar—but more on this later–and non-guitar), political activism (for want of a better term, and one that FZ would likely have hated), and personal insights into his life, concluding with his premature demise from prostate cancer.

“Best moments: Hearing from Bunk Gardner and Ruth Underwood. Priceless! The Kronos Quartet. I wish FZ would have written more small-ensemble music. The 1992 Yellow Shark rehearsals and performances with the Ensemble Modern. I found this footage really quite emotional. In some respects, this segment highlighted the music format that was probably his deepest passion.

“The Ruth Underwood and Joe Travers ‘Black Page’ duet, with very effective comments from Steve Vai and Ruth. The comment from Vai about how FZ could drive musicians to go beyond what they themselves thought possible reminded me of a similar ability possessed by Miles Davis. So that’s a comparison at the highest level.

“Highlights: The early family movies. The ‘Phase 1’ Mother of Invention band movies, particularly the Garrick Theatre footage. I had heard this existed, but I’d never seen any of it before. Bruce Bickford (sad to see him looking so ill). FZ giving the tour of the vault, what a treasure trove! The short clip of a Vinnie Coliauta/Arthur Barrow duet. Coliauta and Bozzio were Zappa’s two best drummers IMO, and the competition for that accolade was fierce.”

“When the first Mothers of Invention LP Freak Out came out I bought it immediately,” remembers Carol Schofield.

Kerry Mcnabb and Frank Zappa in Zappa, a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright Yoram Kahana. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Kerry Mcnabb and Frank Zappa in Zappa, a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright Yoram Kahana. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

“I went to a friends’ house and sat there listening to it in the dark smoking a joint. In 2008 I was fortunate to release Don Preston’s original music composed and performed soundtrack to Gary Plays: Trilogy of Plays by Murray Mednick on my Citadel Records label.”

“Lumpy Gravy was Frank Zappa›s first solo album, and in some respects, his most important music to date,” stresses Gene Aguilera.

“The project began when Capitol Records ace producer and A & R rep. Nik Venet approached Zappa to compose and conduct an album’s worth of orchestral music. When Capitol made it available to the public on August 7, 1967 (but strangely only on the 4-track cartridge format). Verve soon found out and sued for contractual breach, and the product quickly withdrawn.

“Lumpy Gravy was officially released on vinyl by Verve Records on May 13, 1968, a mere two months after the Mothers of Invention musical masterpiece We’re Only In It for the Money. But, Lumpy Gravy was the secret album, the idiot bastard son, and extension of We’re Only In It for the Money (as both were recorded simultaneously). Over the years I began to appreciate why Zappa’s conceptual continuity was so important to understanding his work (‘It’s all one album’).

8 copy“The 50-piece ensemble, named Abnuceals Emuukha Electric Symphony Orchestra, was conducted by Zappa and included crack Hollywood studio musicians (such as guitarist Tommy Tedesco, drummer Shelly Manne, and Pete Jolly on piano) along with assorted members of the Mothers. The Zappa flashes of genius (or insanity) continued on in a wild collage of ‘field recordings’ using sophisticated mixing effects. It’s amazing what Zappa could do with recording tape, a razor blade, and a lot of inspiration.

“I once told Zappa at UCLA’s Royce Hall that I’ve been playing Freak Out since I was 13 years old to which he quipped, ‘And your neighbors still talk to you?’”

Harvey Kubernik and Alex Winter Interview

HK: Tell me about genesis for your ZAPPA expedition.

AW: We were coming off a couple of pretty heavy documentaries, and I was looking for something to do which had some levity. I tend to be drawn to subjects that have some position within culture. And have some impact on that culture. And I’ve been a lifelong Zappa fan and [producer] Glen [Zipper] and were tossing ideas around and wondering why no one had told this story. It just seemed like such an important story, and a good one and one that had a lot of the themes that tend to interest me. And I loved Zappa’s humor and the way he came at his art and his politics and sort of his life in general. So, that was kind of the impetus.

We sought out the rights, and of course, that was Gail Zappa. And we got a meeting with Gail. I pitched her a take and thought it will either be 20 minutes out of my life, no harm or foul. And, she was really taken with the perspective that we had, which was great. And Q: And your focus was a serious examination of Frank Zappa’s life.

A: That is what I pitched Gail at the very beginning. Was that I wasn’t particularly interested in making a rock ‘n’ roll music movie, and I wasn’t even interested in making an album-to-album Zappa movie.

I really wanted to look at what it was like to be someone like Zappa at that period in American history and the commitment that he made to his art and what that cost him personally. And I wanted it to be warts and all. And I didn’t want to white wash him. I really didn’t want to make a legacy film at all. ‘Here’s this great guy and all this cool stuff that he did.’ So, that was never our agenda. And I think that really appealed to her.

Alex Winter, director of ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright Philip Cheung. Photo Courtesy Of Magnolia Pictures

Alex Winter, director of ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright Philip Cheung. Photo Courtesy Of Magnolia Pictures

I laid that out from the very beginning ‘cause I really didn’t want to travel down the road if that was gonna shock them at some point because I also needed final cut. And, of course, I wasn’t going to bamboozle her into giving me final cut on something that was not pitched as advertised.
Q: You had total access to the vast Zappa archives. That surely was an asset in creating and assembling the portrait.

A: The thing that benefitted us, which we weren’t entirely aware, would be as beneficial when we started was how the project evolved. Meaning, my pitch to Gail, she loved the idea, I started filming interviews with Gail out of my own pocket years before we actually had the budget to start making the documentary.

In fact, she wasn’t alive by the time we started making this documentary, which I didn’t realize was going to be the case. So I started filming interviews with Gail, and at the same time I was very concerned about the state of some of the material in the vault. Given time will have its way with anything, especially old film.

The family did a very good job of preserving the music and the majority of media that was of significance. But it was a vast collection of material and far too much to get all of our arms around. So, for the next couple of years we really were only a preservation mission.

I did this Kickstarter campaign where we raised a great deal lot of money that I was very grateful for. And every penny of that went towards preserving the material in the vault that was in danger of deterioration. At that time I did not have financing for the documentary.

My team and myself were in the very arduous and complicated process of preserving all this material. But what that gave me and my editor Mike Nichols was having a lot of time to look at that material. And organize and catalog it, and figure out exactly what we had so by the time we did get financing we had a really good idea of what was in our hands.
I never really set out to make out an 8 hour version and then we would edit it down. I had a really specific narrative in my mind. There is an endless supply of concert DVD’s, movies for fans who want that kind of thing. And I had a real specific idea in my mind about telling a specific kind of story.

I never in a million years even desire to try and encompass all of Frank’s life in one film. I knew I could be selective with the biographical elements in terms of what helped us to tell the story. There is a great wealth of music to plunge into that he left us with. So I was really focused on a very specific story and so was Mike Nichols the editor. Together it made it much easier to determine what of all of his media we wanted to use and what we didn’t.

Q: Can you discuss the handful of interviews you conducted weaved into the documentary.

A: I wanted to have as few interviews as humanly possible. I wanted the film to be primarily archival with as much Frank’s presence that I could get. But I didn’t want to not have interviews just for the sake of having a film which presented itself as all archival. I felt that would have been unfair and would not have allowed me to have benefit of greater perspective.

Frank Zappa in ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright DAN CARLSON. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Frank Zappa in ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright DAN CARLSON. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Also, I was able to ask very specific questions that I wanted to ask to get the answers that I was looking for in terms of certain aspects of Frank’s life, his nature and his heart. I knew some of these subjects would get into his interior life in a real meaningful way, which we got, of course, from Ruth Underwood, Steve Vai, and others.

The way I conduct interviews in general is a combination of very specific questions leading in a very specific direction combined with leaving the conversation open enough to free form enough that I can go in some directions that I don’t expect.

Q: What emerged after you finished the final cut that we get to view? You have chronicled an independent force of nature.

A: So much. I knew the facts of his life and I knew a lot of the details of his life. But being able to deep dive into his tenure at the Garrick Theatre in New York, for example, was extremely impactful, emotional and inspiring.

Being able to dive into all that video footage of Gail running Zappa Records and just sitting on the floor with piles of albums and ultimately CD’s and building an independent record label at the time was unheard of in a way. Very inspiring.

Frank Zappa in ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright DAN CARLSON. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Frank Zappa in ZAPPA, a Magnolia Pictures release. Copyright DAN CARLSON. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Again, I knew the facts of these things but that is why I like making films because there is nothing like the visceral impact of engaging with them as visual media. That had a big influence on the way I shaped the film. But it also was amazing stuff to find. Frank was extremely aware of the commitment you make to be open to your public when you lead that kind of life.

Frank Zappa was not only a creative genius, but also a great and eloquent thinker who articulated the madness of his times with extraordinary clarity and wit. A legitimate maverick who lived and worked amongst other extraordinary people in historic times.

Sure, he worked really hard, and he was locked up in his home studio, but he was not at all disconnected from the people around him. And he was not in accessible to them. And so to me, and we play with this in the film, to me became a very organic line once it was harder for him to make his albums, harder for him to go on tour. He would really just roll up his sleeves and dove into the public life doing civic work. The voting rights work, the senate hearings against censorship, the work he did with Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia.

He earned his audience and was very appreciative of that audience. And he was not the kind of artist that didn’t care what the audience thought of his work. He was a showman. He had this since he was very young. A teenager. He was aware of the service aspect of making art in that way.

Harvey Kubernik is the author of 19 books, including Canyon Of Dreams: The Magic And The Music Of Laurel Canyon and Turn Up The Radio! Rock, Pop and Roll In Los Angeles 1956-1972. Sterling/Barnes and Noble in 2018 published Harvey and Kenneth Kubrick’s The Story Of The Band: From Big Pink To The Last Waltz. For summer 2021 the duo has written a multi-narrative book on Jimi Hendrix for the publisher.

Otherworld Cottage Industries in July 2020 has published Harvey’s 508-page book, Docs That Rock, Music That Matters, featuring Harvey’s interviews with D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Albert Maysles, Murray Lerner, Morgan Neville, Michael Lindsay-Hogg, Andrew Loog Oldham, and David Leaf, among others.


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