Zappa: I May Be Totally Wrong but…, by David Bax
It’s not uncommon for documentaries to include, alongside archival footage of their actual subjects, contemporary footage of the popular culture of the time being documented, contextualizing and often ironically commenting on what they’re showing us. But in its early sections covering the childhood and early adulthood of its subject, Alex Winter’s Zappa extends this approach to the point where the film becomes more collage than documentary. It’s exciting, wonderfully disorienting and, at times quite funny, like when we hear Zappa talk about wanting to blow up his school as a kid and Winter cuts from a shot of the school to footage of a building being decimated in an atomic bomb test in a way that almost for a second makes you think you’ve seen Zappa’s boyhood daydream realized. Eventually, Zappa calms down into a more conventional bio-doc but the energy remains.
Unlike Thorsten Schütte’s 2016 Eat That Question, which told Zappa’s life story entirely with the words of the man himself, Zappa does not eschew other points of view and the occasional newly conducted interview. Still, Zappa was loquacious and there is plenty of audio of him pontificating at length about himself, his work, the work of others and, in the final segment, his anti-censorship politics, the one area where this non-fan of Zappa’s music finds a great deal of agreement with him.
One area of focus that distinguishes Zappa from Eat That Question is collaboration and the ways in which Zappa was and absolutely was not interested in pursuing it. When it came to his music, of course, there was no give and take (at least after his early work as a composer for films such as Timothy Carey’s The World’s Greatest Sinner). Much is made of how the Mothers of Invention, Zappa’s original band, were treated more as employees than fellow artists. He also, as will come to no surprise to people who have endured his novelty records, thought of himself as something of a funnyman and laments that, when Saturday Night Live asked him to play himself in a sketch, they didn’t allow him to rewrite it. But in other media, when he found someone he liked, such as his album cover designer Cal Schenkel or animator Bruce Bickford, he treated their contributions with respect.
Mere respect sounds like a low bar but Zappa was, to put it bluntly, an asshole. To his credit, Winter doesn’t seem to quite disagree with that assessment but the truth is that it doesn’t matter. When allowed to speak at any length, Zappa’s assholery could not be hidden and any documentary aiming for a full portrait of him would self-destruct by trying to edit around it.
But, still, I like Zappa and I liked Eat That Question. So why do I find documentaries about someone whose work I don’t enjoy and whose personality I find objectionable so intriguing? Well, from the perspective of someone who loves art, it’s a bit of a monkey’s paw wish to see an artist living with the level of devotion and purity of purpose we think we want from those who have given us the work that has adorned and even defined our lives. Seeing what such commitment actually wreaks on the lives of those around him ought to make us rethink our parasocial relationships.
It feels odd, perhaps, to talk about Zappa’s seriousness about his art, which was so often defined by irreverence. We repeatedly see young Zappa and various members of the Mothers of Invention sticking their legs above their heads in a juvenile, ass-forward display of impudence. But it’s performative, part of the act. Zappa was serious even about mockery. That’s what keeps me from liking his music but it sure makes him a good subject for a documentary.