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Zappa Documentary & Soundtracks Shine New Light On Legendary American Composer, Guitarist, Innovator

There is a fine and important new documentary just out about Frank Zappa which everyone who is interested in music should watch, even if you aren’t particularly a deep fan.  It tells an important story about the pursuit of a decidedly unique American dream, achieving success against all odds, out-of-the-box business thinking, and even political consciousness driving a quest for free speech and protection of our rights as Americans.  Its quite timely considering all that has been going on in 2020. And yes, you can get all this out of watching a documentary about Frank Zappa.

The Kickstarter Campaign

About four years ago I learned about an exciting Kickstarter campaign I had to participate in which aimed to save “The Vault” — the legendary artistic archive of one of my musical heroes, Frank Zappa (1940-1993, RIP).  After his wife Gail passed in 2015 (RIP), there was a need by the estate (ie. his kids) to move on and sell off the home they grew up in.  

All that made sense, but the question remained: what to do about the thousands of audio and video tapes in the archive?  This was essentially a basement bunker filled with Zappa’s recorded life history: master recordings, rehearsals, demos, experiments and more. 

The Kickstarter aimed to not only preserve the contents of The Vault once removed from their home (which I suspect has since been sold) but also take necessary steps to transfer the aging tapes — many in a variety of formats that roughly parallel the development of modern recorded media as we know it — to modern digital formats. 

Just thinking about this herculean task they were undertaking made my brain hurt, understanding its scope immediately.  Being a pretty much lifetime Zappa fan (I got on the bus around 1974 when I was in 7th grade), I contributed as much as I could to the campaign which not only granted me a nifty “I Helped Save The Vault” goodie bag with all sorts of Zappa memorabilia (some from his house!) but also the promise of a commemorative soundtrack-type album on vinyl.

Of course, the end-game with all this was to begin unearthing some of the gems that have been long buried in this treasure chest.

The Documentary’s Kickstarter Roots

It is a bit confusing tracking the sequence of events which led up to the documentary. What I (and apparently many others) didn’t fully realize at the time four years ago was that the fundraising campaign was just used to save The Vault materials.  An email was recently sent to Kickstarter backers by Producer Alex Winter (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) explaining all this.  

I went back to the original Kickstarter page and was reminded of the wonderful original note from Mr. Winter stating his intent (click here to jump to it): 

“I have always been drawn to telling the stories of great, challenging Americans. These are people who changed the world around them without being easily defined or constrained; people who break the rules with purpose, ideology and vision; people like Frank. …. I want to tell Frank’s story without making a biopic; to make a music doc without making a music doc. And I think that’s just how Frank would have wanted it.”

So, indeed, the first step was “saving” the Vault which in turn enabled the development of the documentary on Zappa’s life and work — a separate funding effort with other backers such as Magnolia Pictures.

No doubt, both efforts are intrinsically intertwined — the film would never have happened if not for the 10,000-plus fans funding the Vault’s preservation. According to the official press release (click here) “… the film became the highest-funded documentary in the crowdfunding site’s history.”  All of us Zappa fans who backed the Kickstarter should be proud of their participation. I know I am!

And Now On With The Really Big Show…

Thankfully, several weeks ago I was invited to see a prescreen of the film and I was not disappointed. In fact, I was thrilled by it. I watched it again over Thanksgiving weekend.

It also brought me to tears… both times. 

Kudos must go out to Alex Winter for having the vision to tell Zappa’s life story on multiple levels.  Most importantly, this new documentary zeroes-in on Zappa’s heart, that inherent passion which resonated with so many of us upon hearing his music for the first time.  

For Zappa band alumnus Ruth Underwood, that transformative moment took place (as she explains in the film) when attending a live concert she saw in NY in 1967. It ultimately flipped her universe inside out, prompting a move from traditional Juilliard classical training and an orchestral career trajectory to ultimately join and play a central role in Zappa’s band for many many years. 

I know that for me personally, that similar life changing moment happened when I heard Freak Out for the first time in seventh grade — it turned my world perspective inside out. Combined with subsequent Zappa releases I started to study intently, his perspective helped to shape my own and even influenced many of my education and music / entertainment career decisions — choices to pursue dreams I otherwise might not have considered remotely feasible as a lower middle class kid in NJ with approximately zero contacts and no idea where to start.   

Through largely his own words and music, with astounding footage from the Vault as well as on-camera appearances by many Zappa band alumni, Winter unveil’s the story of Frank’s upbringing, his aspirations, his family, his triumphs and failures and ultimately his tragic demise due to cancer. The amount of work it must have taken to go through all the Vault materials that they have thus far unveiled is staggering.  I suspect there is probably enough for several more documentaries.  

What with its wealth of not only unseen footage of Zappa performing back in the 60s and such, it is no doubt a remarkable film to look at purely as a Zappa fan.  For example, I never imagined that there was film footage from those 1967 residency performances at The Garrick Theater (I do still wonder where Zappa got the resources to do that!)

This Zappa documentary is, ultimately, more than just a film for the fans. It will hopefully serve to inspire a new generation of fans getting interested in Zappa’s music for the first time. 

Which leads to the story of the soundtracks…

It Came From The Vault: The Official Soundtrack(s) 

Yes, you read that sub-header correctly: there are at least two official soundtracks to the Zappa documentary, released in the past several weeks (one with a few variations).

On Black Friday, November 27, Universal Music announced a massive multi-disc boxed set series celebrating the film. While the physical vinyl and CD versions will not be out until 2021 — there is a 21-song highlights version as well as a three CD / five LP version — they did go ahead and release the digital versions immediately. You can hear it streaming on Tidal (click here) and Qobuz (click here).  

There is a lot of material to explore, and I’m still going through it all, but at first listen this appears to be a handy collection (with a caveat). 

From a hardcore fan perspective, it is admittedly on one hand a little light on new material — there are only 12 previously unreleased recordings from The Vault. But… there are other rarities which have not really been made widely available commercially — officially — before. For example, the audio to “Dancin’ Fool” from Saturday Night Live in 1978 appeared previously as a bonus video on the 2003 DVD-Audio release called Halloween.  

Perhaps my favorite moment from the soundtrack is an incredible solo piano moment not even played by Zappa but by longtime Percussionist / Marimba player, the great Ruth Underwood. It is also not really in the film in this specific version (there she performs it live with Vaultmeister and Zappa-Plays-Zappa drumming alumnus, Joe Travers). 

Her solo piano rendition of “The Black Page #1” is gorgeous — generally regarded as one Zappa’s most difficult compositions to play, it is also one of his most beautiful. Stripped down here to just a solo instrumentation the listener can get inside the melody and complexity of the work. 

This version on the soundtrack album appeared last year for the first time on the 40th Anniversary expanded edition of Zappa In New York.  You can click here to read my review of that album but I’ll quote myself as an addendum: “Remarkably, Ruth Underwood contributes a newly recorded Piano arrangement of “The Black Page #2” to close out the set which she had worked up back in the day (and apparently recorded for Frank but which has not yet been released)”

And Then There Is The Kickstarter Version Of The Soundtrack…

Ok, so what about that vinyl release that the Kickstarter backers got?, you ask… 

It is pretty great in all its 13-song conciseness. Featuring new cover art by long time Zappa artistic collaborator Cal Schenkel and pressed (I think) on 180-gram black vinyl (quiet, well centered, etc.), I was initially disappointed when it first arrived. However…  as the official full soundtrack contents unfolded this past week I changed my view and am now quite pleased with it. 

Why?  

Because it contains material not on the other soundtracks!  

Happily for the hardcore Zappa fan like me this Kickstarters-only version of the soundtrack includes exclusives including the 1968 outtakes “Oink,”“Randomonium” and “Humble & Naive.“ “Theme From Run Home Slow” and “The Little March” are taken from a 1969 performance in Connecticut.

Also unique to the Kickstarter album is a fresh 2018 recording of Zappa’s composition “None of the Above” as performed by The Kronos Quartet in the documentary.  Apparently, Zappa had been commissioned to write this for the ensemble  many years ago. They performed it several times in 1985 but never officially recorded it.  That new version is in the documentary. You can click here to listen to an unofficial 1985 live performance of the work which is up on YouTube. 

Timing being everything, the Kickstarter vinyl release appeared more or less coincident with the release of the film and the boxed set’s digital streams.

Are you confused yet? Don’t worry.  Even I am still a bit (so if I made any errors in this erzatz review, mea culpa!!).  

I will go into more detail on the soundtrack in another feature to come (hopefully coinciding with when I get the vinyl or CD version of the set, but maybe sooner).  Eventually when this gets a physical release as (hopefully) a Blu-ray Disc (with lots of unedited bonus materials, please!) I’ll explore the new Zappa movie more. 

That said, a friend asked how this compared to Eat That Question, a documentary made in 2016 with a similar premise of using his own words to tell the story.  I have not seen it since its theatrical debut and while I liked it, I do think this new one tells Zappa’s story better in a way that anyone can appreciate. Indeed, I watched Zappa (the movie) again over Thanksgiving weekend with a friend who knew little about Zappa beyond my ongoing passion for the man and his music. My friend came away with a strong appreciation for what Zappa was really about and thus I think this film was successful in its intent.

I encourage you to watch the documentary (I found it on Amazon but it is on many streaming and on-demand services…. you can find links on the Magnolia Pictures sub-site for the film by clicking here).  

If you are new to Zappa’s music, after watching the documentary you should start to explore his catalog. While I will always recommend buying the albums (especially on vinyl), if you have access to streaming services like Spotify, Tidal and Qobuz you can find most of Zappa’s catalog up there for your instant enrichment.  Start at the beginning and work your way to the present. There is so much musical joy to explore in Zappa’s universe…

Zappa fans indeed have much to be thankful after this Happy  Franksgiving weekend!

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