Before his death at age 52, Frank Zappa produced one of the most massive discographies in recorded music. The Mothers of Invention leader’s music spanned rock & roll, doo-wop, jazz, classical and everything in between, usually accompanied with a lighthearted smirk, over the course of 100 albums released so far. No matter how well you know his music, though, you can’t help but feel like you have a perspective somewhat akin to a flea’s eye view of an elephant. The only thing more overwhelming than attempting to make sense of Zappa’s life’s work would be trying to summarize his life as a whole. Now there’s a new documentary in the works that will attempt to do just that.
The Zappa estate recently gave filmmaker Alex Winter, who is best known as Bill from the Bill & Ted movies and who in recent years has earned acclaim for documentaries like Downloaded and Deep Web, unprecedented access to the family’s fabled vault of Frank ephemera to make a movie, due to come out in the next couple of years. The documentarian will craft the film from the family’s collection of the subversive rocker and composer’s recordings, interviews, movies and other miscellany – kept in a vault so big that Frank’s widow, Gail, likens it to a “trash barge” – so he can build a narrative from Frank’s own words. Ultimately, Winter hopes to make the definitive portrait of Frank’s life.
“I have always been a humongous fan of Frank Zappa’s,” he says, in conversation with Gail and Frank’s son, Ahmet. “I’ve always been very, very interested in Zappa’s life and who he was as a person, what his interests were creatively, the type of music that he made, including the classical composition, his political interest, the wit and eloquence of the way he presented himself. This was a really extraordinary artist and creative person and thinker. He is this great big, wonderful, conflicting, paradoxical American identity that’s never really been given a documentary that conveys all that.”
Before he got started on the documentary about five months ago, Winter also assured the Zappas he understood what an undertaking the film would be. “I knew if we decided to move forward it would become a voluminous task,” he says with a laugh. “And it’s presented itself as one almost immediately.”
Gail says that over the years, many people have pitched the family on documentaries about the artist, but they all “failed miserably at the doorstep.” Winter won the Zappas’ favor with his explanation of his meticulous approach to documentary filmmaking (he spent a decade crafting file-sharing doc Downloaded) and with the way he described how he wanted to present the movie’s tone. “There really needs to be a trust and a real understanding,” Ahmet says of bestowing the keys to the kingdom to a filmmaker. “We’re private people, and we want the story to be told. We are so happy Alex is taking it on.”
“I’m just relieved I don’t have to do it myself,” Gail says with a laugh. From Frank’s death of prostate cancer in 1993 until earlier this year, when she handed the reins to Ahmet, the 70-year-old served as the prime custodian of Frank’s legacy. Now she’s looking forward to seeing how Winter approaches Frank’s story.