Frank Zappa: The Freak-Out List (Sexy Intellectual, NR)

The blow of how boring this all is softened somewhat by their better-than-usual choices for visuals to accompany long parts of music that go along with the film.



In the past several weeks two tributes to the role models of my own role models have been released: the book Role Models by John Waters, and the documentary Frank Zappa: The Freak-Out List, which was released straight to DVD by Sexy Intellectual. This is a trend that I can stand to get on board with; it’s a lot of fun to find out how your idols got to be the way that they are.

The Freak-Out List is a reference to a list of inspirations Zappa listed in the liner notes of his band The Mothers of Invention’s landmark debut LP from 1966, Freak Out! The list in question is of approximately 180 people, which range from writers (Lawrence Ferlinghetti, James Joyce) to famous musicians (Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley) to future collaborators (Don Vliet, Johnny Guitar Watson) to just about anyone else, like someone called ‘Donna #2.’ What the film The Freak-Out List aspires to do is illustrate how these people influenced Zappa’s trademark sound, and in doing so, they only focus on a small number of the people on the list. The vast majority of the film is dedicated to classical composers (Igor Stravinsky, Edgar Varese), jazz musicians (Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, with the latter not even being on the titular list), and doo-wop singers.

While they are easily maintaining their good taste in musicians to profile in their DVD releases (previous subjects have included Captain Beefheart, Tom Waits, and The Velvet Underground), Sexy Intellectual sadly has not given up their predilection for stuffy, boring, often pretentious talking heads droning on about topics that you might have cared about going in, but won’t pretty soon after you start watching this film. Of the many people interviewed for this film, most of whom are knowledgeable but thoroughly unengaging academics, only former Zappa collaborator George Duke comes off well—the film would have benefited greatly if there had been a lot more people like Duke interviewed in it, or at least if it had more footage of the Duke interview. The blow of how boring this all is softened somewhat by their better-than-usual choices for visuals to accompany long parts of music that go along with the film. These clips include Godfrey Reggio, Stan Brakhage, and even George Lucas films, which come as a welcome visual diversion, and usually fits the music well. (Makes one wonder what Koyaanisqatsi would have been like if Zappa had done the music instead of Philip Glass…)

The special features, such as they are, aren’t any better. There are illustrated biographies of the boring people from the film, and also an insulting little bit called “Zappa’s Desert Island Discs,” which is only five minutes long and focuses on just two albums.

It’s a shame that this documentary isn’t better than it is—the topic is fantastic, and begs to be redone by a student writing a thesis. In fact, I’m sure that’s been done before, many times over. Really, it wouldn’t have been hard to make this a lot more interesting—I know that if they went through each person on the list the film would be extremely long, but couldn’t they find at least a few minutes to discuss what effect Lenny Bruce or Tiny Tim, both of whom are on the freak-out list? | Pete Timmermann


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