Written by 6:40 am Audiophile Music, Audiophile News, Blu-ray Disc, SACD/DVD-Audio

The Frank Zappa Documentary Part I: The Blu-ray Disc

Some of you may remember that last year I was very excited to review a video documentary by producer director Alex Winter about one of my musical heroes, Frank Zappa. This film — simply called Zappa — embodied a multi-level project that not only helped preserve the vast archive of historical media in Zappa’s legendary “vault” archive, but presented a distinctive profile of Zappa’s life not many of us really fully understood. And it was all told pretty much from his vantage point and those who worked closely around him. 

If you haven’t seen the film and want more insight, please click here to jump to my overview / review from when the documentary first was released in digital form (and when the soundtrack appeared on some streaming services). 

Alex Winther did a magnificent job on Zappa and the biopic is now available on Blu-ray Disc for those who like to own physical versions in their collection. There are a number of reasons why you would want this. Zappa is a powerful documentary which contains a lot of great footage in it that I suspect that even hard core Zappa fans had never seen before — at least in this sort of quality — so on that level it is essential. 

It is worth noting here that Zappa fans are a bit like DeadHeads and Springsteen fanatics, collecting the artist’s music deeply beyond the officially released material — radio and concert recordings, TV appearances and more. 

For those types of super serious fans, there are wonderful bonus materials on the Zappa Blu-ray Disc so you don’t want to miss out on that. Included are fascinating demonstrations by Zappa of his Synclavier,  an early digital music production workstation.  There are wonderful out-take interviews with Zappa’s musician including Mike Keneally, Steve Vai and Ruth Underwood, all offering important additional insights. 

There is also video of great question and answer Zoom session featuring Alex Winter and associate producer Mike Nichols, moderated by no less than “Weird Al” Yankovic!  There they offer many more insights into what went into making this fantastic documentary and its underlying intent. 

There, you’ll also get a tantalizing teaser of a sort confirming most every Zappa fan’s dreams that there is much more in the vault yet to see the light of day. Just hearing those words uttered (albeit, non-specifically), confirming the notion that they are still figuring out what to do with all the the material there, is an exciting musical carrot dangling in the future for this Zappa fan.

Perhaps my favorite bonus feature on the disc, however, is the shortest item included: an animated TV commercial for Zappa’s classic 1974 release, Apostrophe. I would love to know where this commercial may have aired back in the day…

The Blu-ray Disc comes with options for Stereo and standard Dolby Digital surround sound. The latter is perfectly adequate for this presentation as there are no whizz-bang super immersive special effects going on. Also, since much of the material presented is taken from vintage TV and archival video sources in frequency-limited mono and stereophonic sound, the surround mix is almost ancillary. It does fill up you home theater viewing space nicely for what it is.

One last tidbit as we wrap up this review is the notion of the cover art used on the Kickstarter edition of Zappa vs. the commercially released incarnation:  each have completely different designs!

At first I was surprised because I thought the original promo poster (and soundtrack album design for that matter) which the Zappa estate created was actually pretty terrific. But I suspect that there is one thing central to that image which is probably difficult to promote these days in mainstream retail outlets: cigarettes.

Zappa fans know he was a lifelong heavy smoker – something that probably contributed to his death (look it up on the web). Whenever you saw him, whether in the studio, his house or on stage in concert, a cigarette was never far away.

So having that image of him smoking on the cover — there is even a silhouette shot of him on the physical discs in the soundtrack packaging — is a reminder, I think at least, to people to not smoke. If you know the story you won’t take this as an endorsement that smoking is anything good. 

However, understanding the realities of brick and mortar retail in the 21st century, I suspect that cigarettes are something that probably can’t be on a product as some people might take to heart as a positive endorsement. There is nothing cool or good about smoking, kids. 

‘Nuff said…

Anyhow, tune in tomorrow when I’ll explore the newly released Zappa Original Motion Picture Soundtrack on compact disc!

Zappa’s Apostrophe Ad from a fan post on YouTube…. the Blu-ray version looks much better than this!
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