Zappa (film, 2020)
My partner was out of town all last week, so I spent more time in front of the TV than usual. Inevitably, I ended up watching some music documentaries, among them this Zappa documentary. I’ll watch a well-done documentary on just about any artist or style of music, and even though I’ve never gotten into Zappa’s music, the seal of approval from the hosts of the podcast You Don’t Know Mojack was enough for me to dial up this film on streaming.
Jeff, Dominic, and I were talking about music documentaries a few weeks ago, and I noted how the documentary seems to be an essential element in today’s playbook for transforming a has-been into a “legacy artist.” This occurred to me when I watched the recent HBO documentary on the Bee Gees. That documentary used a lot of footage from the Bee Gees’ episode of Behind the Music, which reran relentlessly on VH1 in the 90s, when I must have seen it a dozen times. Behind the Music presented the Bee Gees (at least partially) as kitsch, but the HBO documentary went to great lengths to argue that the Bee Gees were serious artists who left their stamp on the history of 20th and 21st-century popular music. I remember lots of shots of Barry Gibb gazing pensively over a body of water, presumably contemplating the triumphs and travails of a long and influential career, and of course a long string of talking heads attesting to the group’s brilliance. Which is all fine with me. I like the Bee Gees, and I’m happy to drag all of those copies of Saturday Night Fever out of the bargain bin and into the upper racks.
Zappa also seems at pains to cement its subject’s critical legacy. We see footage of Zappa jamming with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, the usual smattering of talking heads proclaiming his brilliance, and many scenes that emphasize his credibility as a musician. He worked with the London Philharmonic. He was one of the first composers to rely on computers. There are several shots of Zappa’s massive archive where he stored master copies of nearly every piece of music he made. God knows he made a lot of music, and whether you value any of it, you have to admit at least some of it was innovative. The snippets that appear in the film even make Zappa’s music seem like something I might want to listen to.
A couple of weeks ago, Usman wrote in his staff pick about liking an artist’s music while feeling alienated from them politically. The Zappa film attempts to mitigate this issue somewhat by emphasizing that Zappa played music with women and people of color when that was uncommon. That’s great. However, what I come away from the film remembering is the way Zappa dehumanized other people, an issue that seemed to grow worse as he aged. It’s very taboo in our present culture to treat people differently based on categories they fall into, and Zappa didn’t seem to do that; instead, he treated everyone like shit. Not to get into Kantian ethics or anything, but Zappa seemed to view people as tools, as means rather than as ends that have value in themselves. Women were there for him to sleep with. Musicians were there to realize his creative vision. Everyone else just seemed to be in his way.
Obviously I didn’t know Frank Zappa, but he appears arrogant and self-absorbed. I see this not only in stories of people’s interactions with him but also in his approach to music itself. massive archive was testament to the fact that he thought all of his ideas were worth recording and saving (the film argues that this quest to document his ideas consumed him later in life, particularly after he realized he was terminally ill). There’s no sense that some of his ideas were better than others… they’re all valuable because they are Zappa’s ideas, and he had little time or patience for ideas that didn’t originate with him.
Zappa’s arrogance also comes across in the famous trope that his music was too difficult to play. His pioneering work with computers was borne out of his frustrations with getting human musicians to realize his ideas. In the early 80s, Zappa hired the London Symphony Orchestra to perform and record his classical compositions. The film shows footage from Zappa’s appearance on Letterman where he states these musicians were about 75% successful in delivering what he considered a “perfect” performance. The implication being that Zappa’s mind was so brilliant and his work so complex that even word-class musicians couldn’t wrap their minds around it.
Like a lot of arrogant people, Zappa also seemed insufferably whiny when things didn’t go his way. Zappa was bitter that his music wasn’t more successful and thought the media blacklisted him after he ended his contract with Warner Brothers Records. After he left Warners, he started his own label, Barking Pumpkin Records, and he touted the fact that his music was independent, insisting that it was only possible because of the freedoms afforded by market capitalism. In the film, he snidely notes that his music isn’t the result of government assistance or private patronage. However, believing in the power of capitalism didn’t prevent him from whining that his difficult, patently uncommercial music didn’t make him more money. To me, he sounds like the right-wingers who are against “big government,” except when it comes to their own entitlements and welfare.
I realize that I am talking out of my ass here, and that I am giving Zappa heads an engraved invitation to punish the shit out of me. I’m not really trying to talk shit or call out someone who has been dead for over two decades; rather, I’m trying to work through my own complicated feelings about Zappa’s music and the film (which I must note was enjoyable and gave me a ton of food for thought). Maybe someday I’ll even get into Zappa’s music. I joked to Dominic that I would probably love Zappa if he were British, and many of the criticisms I made above could be applied just as much to artists I adore (like Mark E. Smith, for one). I also appreciate the irony of criticizing someone for thinking their every musical whim deserves a hearing while flinging my half-formed musings into the inboxes of thousands of people who I’m certain couldn’t care less what I think of the new Zappa doc.