New documentary explores Frank Zappa’s complexity as a father, musician and activist

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo and Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

Frank Zappa performing with the Mothers of Invention in “Zappa.” Photo by Cal Schenkel, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Frank Zappa was the sardonic anti-hero of LA’s music scene in the 1960s. He was a relentless workaholic when rock stars were laid back. He didn’t drink alcohol or use drugs, unlike most of his neighbors in Laurel Canyon. And he didn’t really care about getting his songs on the radio.

A new documentary takes an intimate look at Frank Zappa, using footage from the musician’s extensive personal archive. It’s called “Zappa.” 

KCRW speaks with director Alex Winter and producer Ahmet Zappa, who is Frank Zappa’s son. 

Winter says the idea for the documentary began nearly six years ago when he pitched the story to Gail Zappa, Frank’s wife. It started as a way to examine artists during particular time periods. 

However, Gail Zappa told Winter that the project would be impossible without reaching into archived, vault material.

“The vault is literally a painstaking Alexandria library of all things Zappa from before his birth to his death, that was absolutely archived and curated by him and included everything,” Winter says. “It was amazing to see and a blessing and a curse. ... There was an enormous amount to go through, and some of that material was very old and in danger of deterioration.” 

This included Frank Zappa’s artwork, photographs, costumes, and film. 

According to Ahmet Zappa, his father’s life was filled with curiosity and learning.

“He was just a student of his own curiosity [and] his desire to learn things, create things. He followed passions. … They were living in the projects. There’s no advantages given to Frank. He had to figure it out on his own,” Ahmet Zappa says.

For example, Frank Zappa taught himself how to compose classical music at the library, and went on to collaborate with the LA Philharmonic, says  Ahmet Zappa.

Frank Zappa formed The Mothers of Invention, a band he described as “designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it.” 

Ahmet Zappa says his father was a vocal supporter of those who were mistreated, and would later fight for the underdog throughout his life. 

“As music was changing and evolving, people, kids, teenagers were being beat up in the streets in California for dressing differently, behaving differently, [and] growing their hair long,” Ahmet Zappa says. “With the platform he had, he talked about it, he sang about it and wrote music to get people to think for themselves and to try to make a difference.” 


Frank Zappa in “Zappa.” Photo by Roelof Kiers, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

Winter says that as Frank Zappa matured, he began to gather a clear political and cultural awareness.

“He had a kind of moment of reconciliation with the reality that you can’t, as a popular artist, just write music about this stuff,“ he says. “If you care enough, you actually have to put on a suit and go down to Washington [D.C.] and do something about it.” 

Winter notes that Frank Zappa’s testimony at the 1985 Parents Music Resource Center’s hearing on rock music censorship was a prime example of that.

According to Ahmet Zappa, his father was one of three musicians in attendance who opposed the censorship. He credits the elder Zappa with helping create a warning label on an album — instead of outright censorship.


Kerry McNabb and Frank Zappa in “Zappa.” Photo by Yoram Kahana, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 

In the documentary, Mother of Invention band member Bunk Gardner describes Frank Zappa as somewhat distant: “In the four years I was with Frank, he shook my hand once and said ‘good job.’ I don't ever remember Frank embracing somebody. Maybe that was his environment when he was growing up. So I kind of accepted that as ‘don't get too close.’”

Winter describes Zappa as a martinet, someone who was really exacting and aloof but also intensely collaborative and deeply connected with those around him. 

Ahmet Zappa says that when people successfully grabbed his father’s attention, he was very present. Each moment spent together was turned into an event.

“It was really, really fun to be in his tractor beam. And I found him to be the most huggable person. He was definitely complex, but at home, he was an awesome dad,” says Ahmet Zappa.

Frank Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993 at age 52. According to Ahmet Zappa, his father spent three years fighting the illness after being told he had three months to live.

Credits

Guests:

  • Alex Winter - director of “Zappa”
  • Ahmet Zappa - musician, producer of “Zappa,” and third child of Frank and Gail Zappa