Text and live photos © Robert Barry Francos/FFanzeen
Film images from the Internet
Frank Zappa: The Freak-Out List
Sexy Intellectual, 2009
88 minutes, USD $19.95
Like the Velvet Underground, a band they shared a bill with many times in the VU’s nascent period, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention are hard to define, let alone put into a genre box. If it were called up to name the format, I would call his music jazz in a rock milieu. But even that is too limited a definition for one of the more groundbreaking avant-garde musicians of the later 20th Century.
Zappa was aware of this conundrum, even in his early days, and on the Mothers of Invention freshman Freak Out album back in 1966, he tried to help out the listener by preparing a list of his influences among the fold-out liner notes for the double-disk. This includes a wide variety of names and styles, from the blatant to the obscure, and nearly all are present in his music.
The purpose of this documentary is to partially explore this list (not all on the list are musicians, such as Wolfman Jack, Sacco & Vanzetti, and John Wayne), and not just show why particular composers and artists are important to Zappa, but to the world of music at large.
One of Zappa’s gifts was as a deconstructionalist. He knew how to synthesize different sounds and genres, and meld them together into a form that made sense. As one talking head interview states in this doc, Zappa did not see genre lines when listening to sounds, it was all just music. He also rebelled against being called jazz, or rock, or anything else; he was performing music that mattered to him, and that’s what was important. That different albums slid over style to style, was more a testament to his versatility than to being an auteur. Or perhaps he was an auteur in his non-auteurism. Deep, man.
I have to say, at this point, that I wasn’t much of a fan of Zappa’s recordings, in fact only owning Freak Out in my collection, finding most of his work too esoteric and usually a-melodic, in the same way that, say, the Velvet Underground’s “European Son” is lost on me (though I like the VU sound in general) in a similar fashion. I’m more of a linear kinda guy. Even so, I found this documentary fascinating in what motivated the man. Zappa is correct, to some extent, that music is music, and what contributes as an influence helps create the output.
As Zappa is deceased (1940-93), and this is not a Zappa-family “official” telling, instead we hear from lots of other musicians, such as numerous members of the Mothers, and music experts / historians / professors of various genres, but we’re not done yet folks, there is also more than one Zappa biographer. Needless to say, the people who talk about the music and Zappa know their topic. Thomas Arnold’s narration is also handled well.
Once the foundations are set about the Freak Out! album and Zappa in general in act one, if you will, the list begins to be broken down by the experts and band members. The first stop is the classical input, by other 20th Century deconstructionalists, such as Stockhausen and Schoenberg, who used patterns rather than formulaic measures.
Moving on to R&B, there’s the likes of Hank Ballard and the Moonlighters, Richard Berry (who wrote “Louie, Louie”), and Johnny Guitar Watson are introduced, the latter of whom would become both a collaborator and friend of Zappa’s.
The progression continues into one of Zappa’s favorite sounds, doo-wop, which has shown up in many forms on various Mother’s albums, specifically the Ruben and the Jets LP. Included in the list is the Cadillacs (“Speedo”).
The progression from there, posits the documentary, is jazz. Miles Davis and his Bitches Brew is cited, though Zappa was already releasing similar sounds before Miles did. Also mentioned are the likes of Eric Dolphy, and another Mothers influence and member, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty.
There are many clips of music used, and not just of Zappa’s, but of the original sources (Miles, for example), sometimes shown one after the other, so the viewer can see by example. These pieces are given enough time to hear what we need (and sometimes thankfully more), but nothing complete considering the length of the music used vs. the length of the documentary.
One part of the film I particularly enjoyed was the discussion of Zappa’s work as the soundtrack writer for one of the best “worst” films, The World’s Greatest Sinner, which I was lucky enough to see in a revival thanks to Walter Ocner (also in attendance was A-Bones’ Miriam Linna and Billy Miller, both big supporters of the film).
Whatever point on the musical map one wants to put Frank Zappa, if they need to, well, it’s only partial because he jumped the genre lexicons the way the Ramones didn’t. But being a stylistic shape-shifter is part of what makes Zappa so important, especially in the time period this film covers.
Some of the extras on the DVD include a short commentary (more like a single-camera class lesson) about a couple of albums that mattered to the man, titled “Desert Island Disks,” which includes Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. There is also a person-by-person text biography for all the people who spoke during Frank Zappa: The Freak-Out List.
Bonus: The trailer