Interview: Alex Winter Talks ZAPPA

Contributor; Toronto
Interview: Alex Winter Talks ZAPPA

For all the rockumentaries and musical biopics that have been flooding our screens since the new millenium deemed the past ripe for exploitation, one stone left curiously unturned has been that of rock & roll avant savant, Frank Zappa. Among many 20th century music aficionados, the Zappa story ranks high among the holiest. So why has it taken until 2020 to reach the silver screen? For a myriad of reasons.

For starters, even for the excessively adventurous listener, to merely take on ingesting every single one of Frank Zappa's 100+ records, let alone adequately digesting them, seems like an endless task akin to mountain climbing. So for a filmmaker to go umpteen steps further to dare attempt a portrait of the complex musical behemoth, while adequately capturing his robust life's work in hopes of distilling and honoring his essence into a 2-hour film, it seems like a herculean undertaking requiring a masochistic diligence worthy of a Mother of Invention.

Sure, some noble unauthorized filmmakers have taken on manageable portions of the man and multi-faceted legend with an outsider's gumption - like 2016's powerfully minimal, Eat That Question, which honed in on Zappa's prolific life in interviews culminating in his lengthy stint as the unappointed but highly articulate US spokesman in the 80's fight against artistic censorship - but otherwise the officially sanctioned Zappa story went untold.

His was mostly because Zappa was a staunch major-label-detesting independent who exercised complete autocratic control over, not only the realization of his compositions, along with the recruited musicians talented and insane enough to perform them, but to the best of his abilities, the fate of the final products themselves. Whatever cannot be found in the archives of MGM, or Warner Bros, or The Steve Allen Show, is safely stored in the vast shelves of the Zappa family vault, securely guarded and protected by his loving estate.

Then five years ago, to the great joy of Zappa zealots everywhere, it was announced that after decades of fielding unworthy pitches, some far too basic for its subject, others far too unhinged, the Zappa family would open the vault doors to a promising non-fiction storytelling talent, Deep Web director, Alex Winter.

And so began the mammoth task of sifting through Frank's endless archives of personal audio video relics of his thoroughly documented life, restoring and digitizing every item, then organizing his dense career of chaotic liberated intelligence so as to make narrative sense of the fiercely independent thinker.

Given the overwhelming abundance and variety of Frank's output, in the hands of a lesser talent, a Zappa documentary could easily fall victim to lack of focus and lose sight of itself. But Winter expertly organizes the wildly varying facets of his life - Zappa the mad genius composer, Zappa the electric blues guitar god, Zappa the in-your-face-satirist, the dadaist, the surrealist, Zappa the London Symphony Orchestra conductor, the hard hitting political defender of freedom of artistic expression, Zappa the sometimes family man, and so forth - seamlessly weaving them together into a telling tapestry portrait of an artist as an absolutely free man.

Except perhaps to his longtime wife Gail, Frank answered to no one or thing except his inner ear for which he was a relentless slave. Gone too soon, at least Zappa's drive made for an extensively productive 52 years on this planet, which will continue to fascinate and inspire independent thinking for generations to come.

For his two years of restoration services alone, Alex Winter has done wonders for Zappa's permanent record. But with the release of his excellent documentary, Zappa - complete with illuminating intimate family interviews, including an infectiously wonderful living room performance from a present-day Ruth Underwood - the world of rock & roll cinema has a new and ever-so-welcome entry. Tell your kids!

Earlier this week, I had the great pleasure of discussing Zappa with its director Alex Winter, and to personally thank him for making my new favourite music film. Watch our Zoom chat below:

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