“Legendary” is an adjective that gets thrown around a lot, often without too much justification. So too is “visionary”, come to think of it. But Frank Zappa was both: insanely talented, intimidatingly intelligent and incorrigibly iconoclastic, he was a towering figure in modern music prior to his death in 1993 at the age of 52. Death barely slowed down his output; posthumous releases of his prolific recordings overtook his lifetime discography a while back.
Which is one reason Zappa can be difficult to approach for the layperson. Where do you even begin? Another reason is that, for all that Zappa was a vital part of the pop culture during his career, especially during his ‘60s and ‘70s heyday (Freak Out! to Joe’s Garage, say), he never seemed too interested in cultivating an audience, content instead to follow his own weird muse down whatever path it took him. Indeed, his music is often confrontational, even downright antagonistic, to the listener. If you didn’t get it, he was not going to bother to explain it to you. If you balked at either the crudity of his humour (see: the scatological ‘Broken Hearts Are For Assholes’); the jarring changes in tone, time signature, and musical genre; or even the insidious sibilance of the Central Scrutinizer, that was your problem. The joke was never explained.
It did get a lot of footnotes, though, and the latest and most detailed is the new documentary Zappa, directed by Alex Winter (yes, Bill S. Preston, Esquire himself, a fine filmmaker). The chief advantage that Winter’s film has over previous biographical accounts is that it was made, over the course of six partially-fan-funded years, with the full cooperation of the Zappa Family Trust. That means we get some incredibly rare and fascinating stuff from the vault: live footage, vintage interviews, candid home movies – you know the drill. Winter carefully arranges these in tandem with fresh interview material to create as complete a screen portrait of Zappa, artist and man, as has been yet created.