and NUMBER ONE ain't YOU. (You ain't even NUMBER TWO.)
--“The Meek Shall Inherit Nothing,” Frank Zappa
Did you know that Frank Zappa was an enormous fan of enormous monster movies? A few weeks ago, Mondo Gallery made available a beautiful collage poster by Alex Winter of newspaper ads for 1950s and ’60s monster movies to herald the release of his new documentary, Zappa. Since then, I’ve been looking forward to seeing the film.
I had always been of two minds about Frank Zappa. I loved his funny novelty songs, like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Baby Snakes,” “Goblin Girl,” “Dancin’ Fool,” “I’m the Slime,” “Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?,” “Dirty Love,” and “Valley Girl.” I was also aware that he was a serious orchestral composer, but his instrumental work tended to leave me cold. These conflicting views of all things Zappa came to a head when I finally saw him live in college. He started the concert with some “earlier, funnier stuff” (i.e. songs with lyrics) but soon picked up a baton and led his stellar rock orchestra through two and a half hours of extremely complicated and cacophonous orchestral music.
How much did I pay for those tickets?
Winter starts the film in a conventional fashion, focusing on Zappa’s childhood in California, but soon we cut to the vault, the storage locker where Zappa housed all of the master tapes of all his thousands of hours of musical composition. For anyone else who suffers from physical media OCD, this vault is surely end of the rainbow in terms of the treasures it contains.
The vault is so well organized!
Similarly, Ruth Underwood, who played percussion in Zappa’s touring band for many years, brings to bear an uncommon understanding of music and of Zappa. She talks movingly of first discovering his music and her belief that he was writing it “just for her.” Haven’t all of us at one time or another, when we find a kindred soul in the arts, think that said artists are speaking directly to us, with the art itself only as a “necessary middleman?” At one point in the film, Underwood plays Zappa’s composition “Black Pages” on the piano, and it’s enough to bring tears to your eyes.
What follows is a different performance of the same piece, included here so my readers can hear it:
At the end of the film, Zappa is shown conducting a full symphony orchestra in a performance of one of his instrumental pieces. The performance is augmented by two dancers, who perform a spirited and athletic dance to the music. The dance helped me to see what the music was trying to say; it brought the piece’s joy and celebration of life... to life. Without the dancers guiding me in a kind of visual, remedial “Music 101,” I may not have even realized what I was “missing” about the music.