Frank Zappa Phase II: The Big Note
Directed by Frank Scheffer
Presented by Other Minds Film Festival, San Francisco, CA • November 8, 2002
Tonight’s masterpiece was projected onto a massive digital screen inside the biggest and brightest building in the Castro District, the Castro Theatre. The Castro Theatre is enormous, overly-ornamented, and glittery like something Elton John would wear. Shouldn’t be surprising, considering the part of town in which it is located. The snacks are cheap. I like that. $5.00 for a small popcorn and a small drink. Tax included in the displayed prices. Remarkable. I think I’ll go there more often.
So what is tonight’s special treat? Let’s see. A Dutch director named Frank Scheffer brings us a 90-minute documentary about legendary composer, Frank Zappa.
The crowd is well-adjusted. Surprising, given the subject of the event. They did clap too much during the movie, but that’s OK. I met a guy outside dressed up as Zappa and took his picture. He was nice, unlike the people at Zappaween. He let me borrow his camera to take a picture of him in case my camera didn’t capture him well enough. He promised to send me the photo.
I was really excited to see it. Highly-insightful and entertaining clips and rare footage were spliced in, most notably four or five brief interviews with Zappa and a television appearance in which he had no facial hair. They really gave me the feeling that Zappa was a clumsy and shy kid at one point in his life, which I had never considered the possibility of. I’ve always thought of him as a wise old man with strong political opinions who watched C-SPAN all day and lived on coffee and cigarettes, but that’s just me.
In addition, several interviews with ex-members of his band gave insight on what it was like to work with such a prolific and unique composer. A powerful man with a visionary mind, he pushed the limits of musician’s abilities into realms they initially refused to consider exploring. His spontaneous conducting style while working with audiences and orchestras is probably still under-appreciated, but is now one more of the many things I can really appreciate about Frank.
The rest of film featured self-indulgent clips that went off on artistic tangents, spending far too long featuring the works of composers such as Edgar Varese, and an abundance of film footage of gas stations and strip malls. Too many clips of well-known stock footage, too. Interviews with people you’ve probably never heard of provided comic relief but were too irrelevant to make me feel that those 90 minutes were well spent. Kinda like a big bag of gourmet jelly beans. I can appreciate the fact that someone worked so hard and put so much effort into presenting a movie about one of the greatest composers who ever lived — but like most tributes, it fell short of the mark.
As the movie ended, I felt an even greater affinity for Zappa than I had ever felt in the past. The fact that this film couldn’t possibly cover all the fascinating parts of his life, including the massive vaults of music in his basement, seemed to become the dominant motif of the film. It saddened me, seeing those masses of tapes that have never been released. I can not fathom how much cool stuff must be in there, and wonder if the albums he managed to release while he was alive are even close to representing his true potential.
During the question & answer period, during which Gail Zappa herself took to the stage, the audience revealed their true annoying selves. Many of them wasted the possibly valuable time by begging Gail to autograph copies of Zappa records they carried with them the whole time. Two men to the left of her took up even more time with irrelevancies.
The entire experience led me to the conclusion that every Zappa fan in the world probably has a different image of what Zappa was, or what they think he was — and that this film is just one man’s personal projection, backed by government funding. I take it for what it is and realize that if I really want to get to understand Frank Zappa and his music, I’ll have to listen to all his albums for myself. The same goes for all of you. Get to work.