Watch the Tunes: Frank Zappa 1969-1973: Freak Jazz Movie Madness & Another Mothers

On July 29, 2016

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your Netflix and Chill time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Frank Zappa 1969-1973: Freak Jazz Movie Madness & Another Mothers, which is streaming over on Amazon Prime.

The thing with Frank Zappa is that the dude released a grand total of sixty two albums in his lifetime (plus thirty nine that have come out since he died in 1993) and they’re all over the map in genre, quality, and ouroboros-level in-joke density. Understandably, this makes it difficult to jump into his discography without a helping hand. Pick the wrong entry point, and you might be turned off for good, which would be a shame since you’re bound to find something to like if you dig deep enough. Most folks suggest Apostrophe or Overnite Sensation as the albums to get you into the rock and roll side of Frank. For me, though, the trifecta of jazz albums, Hot Rats, Waka Jawaka, and The Grand Wazoo that set the best foundation for a holistic understanding of Frank. So sitting down with Tim O'Dell’s exhaustive doc Freak Jazz Movie Madness & Another Mothers, which covers the fertile period between 1969 and 1973 when those albums were recorded, is ideal.

But let’s start by addressing the cold hard fact that this film is not an ideal first step intro into the world of Frank Zappa. O'Dell pretty much hits the ground at a running pace, assuming you already have some basic understanding of Zappa, and he never slows down over the course of the film’s nearly three hour run time. Yeah, you read that right. The runtime is 157 minutes, but don’t let either of those factors scare you off. There are two films coming out soon, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words and Who the F*@% Is Frank Zappa? (directed by Alex “Bill S. Preston Esq.” Winter), which might end up being more simplified gateways into all things Zappa. But for anyone who isn’t scared to jump into the deep end head first you couldn’t ask for a more thorough flick than this.

If you’re going to restrain your focus so much, events between 1969 and 1973 specifically, you’ better go deep down that rabbit hole. In that respect Freak Jazz Movie Madness & Another Mothers has got the goods. Zappa was a workaholic and the exceptionally busy years covered here find him disbanding the first incarnation of his band The Mothers Of Invention, putting a jazz group together, filming a movie, and then going off on a disastrous European tour. Each of these little plot points is taken apart and laid out with a surprising amount of clarity given how convoluted it could’ve ended up being, and every loose chapter dovetails nicely into the next so the film never seems to drag even with that wildly long run time. Hot Rats, Waka Jawaka, and The Grand Wazoo, the jazzy tent poles around which the film is structured, are all taken apart and given a ton of colorful context to sell newbies on those albums and inform old timers alike.

Watching Freak Jazz Movie Madness & Another Mothers you get the sense that working for Frank Zappa was like joining a cult, with a benevolent but capricious musical taskmaster standing behind the altar. Being a bandleader was Zappa’s greatest strength, and the most fascinating bits about the loose three-album cycle are found in the granular detail that O'Dell goes into outlining the tremendous thought that went into each lineup and how the sessions were laid out. It’s not the most entertaining thing in the world, but if anyone’s gonna get a kick out it, the Vinyl Me, Please readership is a great place to start as a target audience.

This is a interesting doc to recommend since you maybe need a bit of research to get into it, but, like all things Zappa, there’s a ton of great stuff in there to be discovered. Most importantly though, it sets a high bar for just focusing in on one aspect of a musician’s creative life and bearing down on it in almost microscopic detail. The list of guys you could apply that microscope to and still turn up stories worth sharing is short, but Frank’s right up there at the top.

Profile Picture of Chris Lay
Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

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