A little more than four years after filmmaker Alex Winter started making a documentary about rock iconoclast and classical composer Frank Zappa’s life, the movie — simply titled Zappa — will premiere at South by Southwest. The festival will take place in Austin, Texas, between March 13th and March 22nd.
Although Zappa has been the subject of many films, Winter’s movie is unique in that it covers the artist’s entire life; he had access to the Zappa family’s vault of uncirculated and rarely seen footage. The film will include commentary from Frank, his wife Gail, his one-time “stunt guitarists” Steve Vai and Mike Keneally, Mothers of Invention members Ruth Underwood, Ian Underwood and Bunk Gardner, and GTOs member Pamela Des Barres, among many others. Winter, who is perhaps more popularly known as “Bill” from the Bill and Ted movies, has also made several award-winning documentaries. He sifted through hundreds of hours of footage to make the picture.
“Zappa was an extremely complicated and brilliant man who had as many detractors as he had fans,” Winter tells Rolling Stone. “I hope that our audience finds him as captivating and significant an American artist as I do.”
“Alex had unfettered access to everything in our vault and total creative freedom to make this movie, unlike other filmmakers,” Zappa’s son, Ahmet, says. “This film is by far the most intimate and expansive look into the innovative life of Frank Zappa, narrated by Frank in his own words. It’s quite unbelievable what Alex has achieved. This is the definitive Frank Zappa documentary.”
Ahmet says he thinks fans of Frank will especially like seeing all the home movies that the family held onto. Some of these include films from high school of Frank with Don Van Vliet (later known as Captain Beefheart), rehearsals at the Gerrick theater and personal documentation of his struggles toward the end of his life; Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993.
“When I first began the preservation work on the vault, I discovered hours and hours of never-before-heard interviews that Frank had stored down there from throughout his life,” Winter says. “Many of these were just Frank and his friends shooting the shit in his basement office. He’s a great storyteller and I was able to have him essentially narrate the story of his own life. Meaning he would begin an anecdote in 1969, continue the thought in 1980 and finish the same story in 1991. It allowed us to create a kind of kaleidoscopic perspective of Frank in time, not unlike his music.”
Winter thinks the intimacy of the film will stand out. “It’s not your standard album-to-album music doc,” the filmmaker says. “It’s really an in-depth examination of an artist’s life, using mostly Zappa’s own words and media from his personal archives. The film is filled with surprises for fans, but I think they will be most struck by the intimacy and a real sense of who Zappa actually was.”
But does the film satisfy the hope that Gail had for it shortly before her death in 2015? Earlier that year, she told Rolling Stone she hoped the doc would answer one question: “Why the fuck would anyone want to be a composer?” Winter says it does.
“I realize now that one of the reasons she allowed me the access to tell his story when she had refused so many others before is that my pitch to her was for a film that specifically looked at Frank as one of our great 20th century composers, mistakenly defined as primarily a rock guitar player,” he says. “He was an artist who was often at odds with both the times and himself. So the film absolutely examines what it means to be an artist and specifically a composer in America at the time that Frank was alive, with all that was going on politically and culturally.”