Zappa ★★★

Sooner or later, any commercially viable documentary about the life and work of avant-garde musician Frank Zappa — outsider art’s ultimate inside man — has to grapple with the same headache from which Zappa suffered for the length of his career: the hostile relationship between commerce and creation. The biologically improbable love child of a time-bending orgy between Igor Stravinsky, Weird Al Yankovic, Jacob Collier, and Led Zeppelin (or maybe it would be easier to just call him a true original), the self-appointed Mother of Invention was a composer by nature, and a rock star by necessity.

He strove to create music that was alive with the same unbridled sense of freedom as he was; music that captured the absurdity of this world and served it back to the masses on wax. As Zappa is heard saying in the new and compellingly well-sourced Alex Winter documentary that bears his name: “A lot of what we do is designed to annoy people to the point where they might, just for a second, question enough of their environment to do something about it. And something has to be done before America scarfs up the world and shits on it.” That ethos resulted in aggressively satirical psychedelia like “We’re Only in it for the Money,” abrasive A-sides like “I Have Been in You” (the lead track off 1979’s immortal “Sheik Yerbouti”), and visionary suites that laundered the history of jazz through joke titles like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” Zappa spent his entire life trying to thrash his way out of the one-size-fits-all straitjacket of the record industry; he marched to the beat of his own cacophonous rhythm section, and struggled to afford them until the day he died.

Here was a guy whose very essence was a repudiation to the prefab arcs and simple chord progressions of the music docs that would become a veritable cottage industry in the decades after his death. To really get at the man behind the music, a movie about Zappa would probably have to be as wild and feral and occasionally unpleasant as he was; it would have to be erratic in a way that would leave most people out in the cold, and make even its target audience feel like they were walking around with a pebble in their shoe. This is not that. A longtime labor of love that Winter only managed to fund by raising more than a million dollars on Kickstarter (Zappa’s actual house remains an unclaimed perk), “Zappa” is unavoidably bogged down by a financial imperative to make some of its money back.