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How Can Frank Zappa’s Colourful Life Possibly Fit in a Documentary?

Gail and Ahmet Zappa and filmmaker Alex Winter explain how they’ll attempt to answer that question with a new film examining the legendary rocker and composer’s life.

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.

“We still haven’t uncovered all of the artifacts that exist in the vault,” she says. “One of the things that we’ve never shared before was endless volumes of interviews with Frank. Someone like Rolling Stone or NBC News would show up for a 30-second sound bite from Frank and they’d end up doing a two-hour interview. Frank was maybe the most articulate person in rock & roll, which is ironic because rock & roll was never really a definition for him; it was just where he fit in. But we made copies of everything, so there is a lot of stuff like that to go through. We’re not worried about filler.”

Winter recalls grinning the first time he set foot in the vault, while his production coordinator had “a quiet heart attack.” As he looked through reels of 16-mm film, two-inch master tapes and heaps of sheet music, the filmmaker could feel Frank’s “physical imprint” on everything.

“You almost feel like you’re connecting with him as you start the journey,” he says. “What excited me most were finding outtakes of certain films he was working on and the interviews. And there are concerts and fantastic music stuff to dive into. To create the impression of the man is daunting. Thankfully, he’s an incredibly entertaining person, so it’s certainly not going to be a boring journey.”

The difference between this Frank Zappa documentary and the films Winter has made in the past is his ambition to create a finished film within a couple of years, rather than over the course of a decade. “It’s going to be a very intensified process,” he says.

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Alex Winter in 1989. Michael Ochs/Getty

For the Zappas, the idea of the doc serves a few, mostly personal purposes. For Ahmet, it’s a chance to reconnect with the father he lost when he was 19. “For me, I’m anticipating this to be a very emotional journey,” he says. “People should have a greater understanding after watching this documentary about just how multifaceted he was. I grew up with my mother and my father, not caring about his job. I cared that he was my dad, so being able to see this footage and to hear him again is bittersweet.”

Gail hopes the film will clear up misconceptions about Frank and silence so-called Frank experts who have opinions about his life but were not there. “There’s all these people that wish to be associated with Frank, and they’re all men, and they all hate me,” she says. “Every single one despises me. Now I’m used to that, but I didn’t set out to be competition for them in their exploration of their, what shall I say, ‘fantasy relationship’ with Frank Zappa.”

“The beauty of this documentary is that you’ll hear it from Frank’s own mouth,” Ahmet says. “It will definitely shed light on who he was.”

As for just who Frank Zappa was, both Ahmet and Gail offer up equally idiosyncratic examples. Frank’s son never had much of an interest in consulting encyclopedias but Dad, he says, “was someone who memorized the encyclopedia,” a fact that has always fascinated Ahmet. “He was just a different kind of brain.”

Gail still recalls being mystified how Frank’s body would often fall into “natural yoga positions” before she’d ever even heard of yoga. “He was already there and then he was just a master,” she says.

Both Zappas marvel at how “present” Frank was in conversation. “Most musicians spend a lot of time living in the present, because they’re onstage and that’s being very present, but they don’t stay there,” Gail says. “They go on holiday when they get off. Frank never did. He was always in the present. If he turned towards you, you knew you were in the moment with him.” Ahmet says, “That’s what I’m trying to achieve personally in my life, which I think was awesome about my dad.”

Frank’s life and legacy has become a chief concern of Ahmet’s as of late, since he has taken over daily operations of the Zappa Family Trust from Gail. The estate recently entered into a new partnership with Universal Music Enterprises, allowing Ahmet to find new ways to spread the Gospel of Frank. The joint venture’s first release will be the 40-years-in-the-making Roxy Movie, finally due out this October. “I really want to try to have a greater connection with the fans and find new ways for them to connect with Frank, get the music in higher quality and have content when they want it, how they want it,” he says, noting that Winter’s documentary is not part of the new partnership. “We’ll be able to put out higher quality content, too. I am also turbo-charged with trying to bring Joe’s Garage: The Musical to fans. When I saw the proof-of-concept performances, I said this just has to see the light of day.”

“My obligation was to get the work out there the way Frank built it in the first place,” Gail says of her previous role.

“I take guidance from my mother who’s been doing this forever,” Ahmet says. “That’s Frank’s partner in crime.”

“I’m more of his partner in cream, really,” Gail rejoins.

Ahmet pauses and says, “I’m gonna try to forget that,” and Gail clarifies, “Coffee and cream.”

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Ahmet, Gail and Dweezil Zappa. Ullstein Bild/Getty