Frank Zappa in “Zappa,” available to rent Friday from PMA Films. Photo by Roelof Kiers/courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Answering an interviewer’s question about his infamous perfectionism, the late musician Frank Zappa once replied, “If you shoot anything lower than that, you’re going to come up with something sleazy.”

In actor and filmmaker Alex Winter’s truly outstanding documentary “Zappa” (streaming starting Friday at PMA Films “virtual video store”), Frank Zappa’s life is portrayed as one long, unending battle against superficiality, commercialism and compromise, the three chief components of sleaze. 

Winter (best known as Bill S. Preston, Esq. in the “Bill And Ted” trilogy) was given unprecedented access to the voluminous Zappa family film, document and musical archives, which is truly a mixed blessing for a filmmaker looking to encapsulate a life and career as ambitiously, kaleidoscopically varied as was Zappa’s before his 1993 death from cancer. Choosing an early archival scene of the middle-aged Zappa sweeping his fingers over the master tapes from some of his most well-known albums (and the occasional home studio jam session with the likes of Eric Clapton or John Lennon), Winter deftly layers in snatches of each performance, Zappa’s gesturing fingers conducting his life’s work like one of his many later orchestral performances. As one admiring colleague puts it in reference to Zappa’s characteristically busy final months of creative choices near the end of the film, “You make decisions about what you have time to finish, which is another kind of composition.”

A biographical documentary about an artist is a genre exercise hemmed in by certain expectations – and the all-too-predictable narrative that is human life itself. “Zappa” does necessarily tread the chronological through-line of Frank Zappa, from his childhood in a chemical weapons factory suburb (where there were gas masks for everyone ready in case of a catastrophe) to his early interest in chemistry (he half-seriously tried to blow up his high school) to the musical ambitions that quickly became the sole driving force in his regrettably short life. (Zappa was only 52 when he died.)

Along the way, the film chronicles Zappa’s many bandmates and musical collaborators, from his early, controversially integrated R&B band The Blackouts to the legendary (and constantly roster-shifting) Mothers of Invention to his solo work alongside everyone from the Kronos Quartet to his daughter Moon (on 1982’s “Valley Girl,” his biggest hit) to the London Symphony Orchestra. (“You pay them,” is how a deadpan Zappa answered David Letterman’s question about how one of the most esteemed classical outfits in the world wound up playing, among other compositions, Zappa’s “Mo ‘n Herb’s Vacation.”) 

What sets Winter’s film apart is how visually and sonically “Zappa” mirrors Zappa. Early on, Zappa muses about his early passion for the subtly evocative art of film editing (we see his parents home movies spliced by the young Zappa with black-and-white flying saucer footage), and Winter takes up that challenge throughout the film. There are the traditional interviews with Zappa himself, of course, but they’re layered over (under and throughout) with clips of old monster movies, live performances, thrillingly grotesque claymation from longtime Zappa collaborator Bruce Bickford, news clips (from, among other things, Zappa’s stand against the government-backed Parents Music Resource Center’s censorship campaign) and, naturally, wall-to-wall music. That said, Winter’s own direction and editing are stellar, always driving the story forward, the visual and audio collage effect yet as precise and restless as the film’s Zappa himself. 

Speaking of her late husband’s insatiable pursuit of perfection in his work, Gail Zappa says Zappa’s goal was always, “How close did you get to the realization of the idea that you first heard, the first time you heard it?” It’s a sad sentiment when you think about it, a constant desire to translate the inimitable perfection of thought and idea into something that can be captured and communicated in this imperfect world.

The film is peppered with anecdotes from those intrepid folks who worked (and sometimes lived) with Frank Zappa. They all try to put as nicely as possible the sentiment, as reverential longtime musical collaborator Ruth Underwood sums the guy up, “What a (expletive), self-centered (expletive).” And they all, interviewed for the film, grapple with emotion as they talk about his loss. One such sideman, renowned guitar god Steve Vai, says, laughing, “Sorry Frank,” after explaining that, to Zappa, making music involved “a lot of suffering on his part due to the inadequacies and limitations of other people.”

And then there’s the music. Zappa is quoted at one point, saying, “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 Zappa fans – I’m one, in theory – will have to concede that Frank Zappa is, according to no definition, easy listening.

But what Winter does so brilliantly in “Zappa” is craft a portrait of someone so engaging, so fascinating, funny and challenging, that we’re prepared to accept what we may not understand. It helps that Zappa was so legendarily funny, even at his most cutting, as when he infamously was asked to host the supposed hippest show on TV in “Saturday Night Live” and, viewing the self-styled rebels there as alternately making fun of and not getting him, mugged through his appearance so egregiously that producer Lorne Michaels banned him. “All these people are looking, but they don’t know what they’re seeing,” said Zappa of his biggest TV audience. 

“Zappa” is a music documentary that comes as close to capturing its subject as any I’ve seen. In its two hours, Winter’s film makes the case for Frank Zappa as American musical royalty, without ever setting aside the fact that Zappa himself had no time for kings, idols or anything sacred. Except music – and the courageous and worthy pursuit of the way it sounds in your head. 

“Zappa,” from Magnolia Pictures, will be available to rent Friday, for $12, through PMA Films at portlandmuseum.org/films.

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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