Zappa Still Alive in "Roxy the Movie"

Roxy the Movie (2015)
Dir.: Frank Zappa
TC4P Rating: 7/9

Except for my brother Otis, I often feel quite alone in my regard for Frank Zappa, especially in 2015. Some of my friends have Zappa in their collections, but nobody that I am aware of listens to him on a regular basis like I do. And except for when I am with my brother, I have no one else in my life with whom to discuss Zappa and his work.

While I was aware of Zappa when I was a bit younger (I remember being fascinated by him when he hosted one of the more notorious episodes of Saturday Night Live), I did not own one of his albums until 1980. After hearing the song Dancing Fool on Dr. Demento's show, I purchased my first copy of Sheik Yerbouti on double LP (with that iconic cover photo of Frank in Arab garb), and I never looked back. Within a year, I owned seven more of his albums. I kept buying even more albums, anything that I could find in our local record stores. I followed every move Zappa made in the press, including his political misadventures, and it just made me feel even more connected to this music from what truly had to be another universe, though he was (tragically) human as anyone else, just prodigiously, ridiculously more talented and outspoken. At a garage sale in the mid-'80s, I picked up the very first Mothers of Invention LP, Freak Out, and after that, it was just a not so simple matter of filling in the gaps, owing to how crazily prolific he was, both in his lifetime and posthumously. Tupac has nothing on Frank.

It is now some thirty years later, and I have nearly every Zappa album -- official and otherwise -- around ninety albums in some form or another, LP, disc, or digital. I have read numerous biographies on the man and even his own autobiography, books of analysis and criticism of Zappa's music output, and magazines devoted to his legacy. The Zappa Wiki Jawaka is a regular online destination for research for me, and I also regularly listen to The Zappa Podcast, released sporadically throughout the year, which is the true apotheosis of Zappa nerdom. Zappa, like Lincoln, is never far from my mind.

And like many Zappa fanatics, it is the hope of discovering missing artifacts and long dormant music that spurs us through the years. For some, one of these artifacts being dangled on the end of a forty year old stick is Roxy the Movie, a concert documentary built from a quartet of performances in L.A.'s Roxy Theatre in December of 1973. The shows featuring the music of one of Zappa's justly renowned and finest ensembles were available on a double LP called Roxy and Elsewhere in 1974, along with selected tracks in the You Can't Do That On Stage Anymore series. (And even more from two of the shows on a 2014 release called Roxy by Proxy.) But what had happened to the movie that was being filmed during that set of shows?

Sound problems, man. Really, synchronization problems. Something got messed up, the timing on the sound in relation to the image went out of whack, and it took forty years (with shifting focus on Zappa's part until his death in 1993) to figure the mess out and release a finished film out of it. Editor John Albarian was brought in to sort through the wreckage. As he puts it in the liner notes, " Four shows multiplied by four cameras multiplied by 80 minutes equates to about 21 hours of picture and sound that needed to be sunk together but couldn't due to their difference in speed." It took him over eight weeks to figure out what needed to be done to get the film and sound to play together nicely. Then he had to cut the film together.

And what we have is what we didn't have before. Criticism is fairly useless, because you can't go back and have Frank do it all over again. We were missing this, and now we get to see it in all of its ragged glory. If you are not already a convert to the cult of Zappa, I am not sure if maybe Baby Snakes is the better entry point film-wise, but Roxy the Movie does show off one incredible band on some of Zappa's most complex (and therefore, difficult to play) pieces.

The Band:

  • Napoleon Murphy Brock (flute, tenor saxophone, vocals)
  • George Duke (keyboards, synthesizer, vocals)
  • Bruce Fowler (trombone)
  • Tom Fowler (bass guitar)
  • Ralph Humphrey (drums)
  • Chester Thompson (drums)
  • Ruth Underwood (percussion)
  • Frank Zappa (lead guitar, percussion, vocals)
Zappa, after discussing sound problems with the audience (certainly presciently), launches into a discussion of marital aids that leads into Penguin in Bondage. Next is the percussion-heavy T'Mershi Duween, followed by a medley jamming together The Dog Breath Variations and a section of Uncle Meat. Excellent renditions of RDNZL and Inca Roads give the entire band a workout before leading into one of my favorite numbers from the film, Echidna's Arf (of You), with its manic start-and-stop rhythms. 

Most impressive for me in the film was getting to see Ruth Underwood attempt some insanely intricate vibraphone, marimba, and xylophone parts in several songs. This is especially true in the next number, Don't You Ever Wash That Thing?, where Frank even calls attention to her at one point when it is her turn to shine (though she has already been going crazy on percussion the entire time). She is clearly very caught up in the concert and has a definite rapport with Zappa onstage. 

Next up is Cheepnis, a number clearly close to Zappa's monster-movie loving heart (and mine). He introduces the number with a lengthy discussion of the Roger Corman film, It Conquered the World (that I just watched again right before Halloween), including a description of its absolutely silly monster. As Frank describes it, "The monster looks sort of like an inverted ice-cream cone with teeth around the bottom. It looks like a... like a teepee or... sort of a rounded off pup-tent affair, and, uh, it's got fangs on the base of it. I don't know why but it's a very threatening sight. And then he's got a frown and, you know, ugly mouth and everything..." Napoleon Brock Murphy's lead vocals tell us the tale, but the middle section with the squeaky vocals describing the giant poodle attack (my favorite part of the song) is completely missing from this version, though the full song does appear on Roxy and Elsewhere. [Note: The poster art (and blu-ray cover art) for Roxy the Movie is itself a takeoff on the original poster for It Conquered the World.]

The show closes with a quite lengthy (17 minutes) version of Be-Bop Tango (Of the Old Jazzmen's Church). Zappa stresses that he wants to make sure they get this take right, and tells the audience, "This is a hard one to play," and then adds with a smile (even though he does play guitar during it), "That's why I don't play it." Clearly meant to stretch the limits of his orchestra, the entire band is up to the task, but in this number, it was the twin drum playing of Thompson and Humphrey that stood out for most for me, as well as jazz giant George Duke on keyboards. The song itself devolves into a weirdo dance contest with members of the audience (and one ringer stripper, who is really not that good) trying to keep up with whatever wild cacophony the band can play. It's truly stupid but also fun in its way, even if it goes on too long. Still, as a record of a Zappa concert in 1973, it is pretty accurate, even if there is an element of "you just had to be there" to get it.

If there is a criticism on the film from me, it is one how Zappa's guitar playing is not showcased as well as I thought it would be. He is rather jammed into a corner of the stage, and oftentimes the camera appears behind his guitar so we don't really get to see him play from that position. He looks cool, sure, but if you are trying to study the man and his style, he is often not afforded the most opportune of angles. Still, Zappa himself is his charismatic best onstage in Roxy the Movie, and fully in control of both the band and his audience in that neo-game show host voice that he perfected.

Extras on the disc include three additional song selections, totally around 20 more minutes, not included in the film. One song has another dance segment, this time involving groupie supreme, Miss Pamela Miller (one day Mrs. Des Barres), who is given the highly misogynistic task of sexually titillating the band members (even taking a crack at Ms. Underwood) to distract them from their playing. One could be taken aback at this behavior in 2015, but again it falls into the category of accepted behavior for 1973 (and well afterward) and comes off less dirty and more innocent silliness than it would seem. And besides, in a time capsule aspect, it is easy to see what was so appealing about Miss Pamela. She was a lovely girl.

And now I have another addition to my extensive Zappa catalogue, not just by having Roxy the Movie, but also because the Blu-ray comes with a second disc with the soundtrack to the film. Will the onslaught of Zappa releases ever end? I certainly hope not, and I am fairly certain that his recorded legacy will not only outlast the impending 25th anniversary of his death in 2018, but also probably my own demise. Hopefully someone will invent a way, besides identity theft, for me to purchase new Zappa albums when I am dead and buried. Just pipe the music into my coffin...


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