“Something terrible has happened,” says Frank Zappa on Roxy: The Movie before we even see the late, great guitarist / composer on screen.
“We want to make sure that the cameras get the music in synchronization with the picture, and we don’t want to f-ck it up!”
Zappa encourages patrons at the swanky Hollywood concert club to relax and dip their beverages while technicians resolve the issue, at which point he and The Mothers will “come out and be zany” for them.
And they do.
Unbeknownst to Frank, however, the glitches were just surmountable enough to let the show go on—but not to compile the feature film he’d hoped to glean from his three-night Roxy stint in December 1974.
Trouble was, the audio gear crapped out at the very start of the first show, so what Zappa and his editors heard later did not synch with the film shot on any of the four 16mm cameras present at each show. Zappa made several attempts to overcome—or at least mitigate—the temporal deviations using ‘70s and ‘80s technology, writes producer / archivist John Albarian (The Kids Are Alright) in his notes for Roxy: The Movie (and CD), now available on DVD / Bluray and compact disc from Eagle Rock.
But the resulting concert film didn’t meet FZ’s demanding standards for release on his indie label. Accordingly, only select fragments of audio and video ever made it to market, vis-à-vis the concert albums Roxy & Elswhere and Roxy by Proxy and promotional videos (a trailer for the planned film appeared on Baby Snakes, and Dweezil Zappa utilized footage from “Montana” and “Dupree’s Paradise” for the 2006 Zappa Plays Zappa tribute tour.
Fortunately (and finally), Albarian and his engineers were able to use 21st century computer software to cobble together not merely a passable version of the concert film Zappa envisioned, but an exciting, dramatic DVD document of the mind-blowing musical events from 42 years ago—and a film whose contents take on enhanced historical significance in lieu of Zappa’s 1993 death…and the wake of Gail Zappa’s own recent passing (Frank’s widow oversaw the Zappa Family Trust, and contributes her final comments here).
This thing is anointed with the oils of Aphrodite and sprinkled with the dust of the Grand Wazoo, people, and makes a great point of entry for ignoramuses, nonbelievers, and curious bystanders who never quite got the mustachioed maestro during his lifetime.
What the concert lacks in visual flair (everyone wears black T-shirts and jeans to maintain movie consistency across the three nights) is compensated by the group’s jaw-dropping instrumental skills. Late keyboard / synth / vocalist George Duke is especially amazing to watch and hear (witness FZ’s homage to alien-carved crop circles Nazca lines, “Inca Road”), as is percussionist Ruth Underwood, whose blinding two-handed runs and embellishments on vibes / marimba / xylophone give “Cosmic Debris” and “Penguins in Bondage” so much of their signature Zappa quirkiness.
Tandem drummers Ralph Humphrey and Chester Thompson are sensational, and it’s the dueling drum sequence here (“Cheepnis”) that inspired the latter’s thunderous showcases with Phil Collins when he joined Genesis on tour four years later. “T’Mershi Duween” and “Echidna’s Arf (of You)” likewise contain lots of terrific timpani.
Trombonist Bruce Fowler is choice and wingman Napoleon Murphy Brock (sax, flute) decorate “Dog Meat Variations / Uncle Meat” with mirth and soul, and enliven an already kinetic “Don’t You Ever Wash that Thing?”
Zappa rips several choice guitar solos on a Gibson SG (“Cosmic Debris,” “I’m the Slime”) but otherwise devotes himself to playing ringmaster and conductor (with subtle elbow jabs or upraised middle fingers). He joins Underwood on skins near the end, but spends an equal number of minutes just sitting in a chair and enjoying the sonic mischief. Zappa goes through a lot of cigarettes, and his chain-smoking is just about the only visual element whose continuity is repeatedly flummoxed: One moment we see Frank lighting up a fresh Marlboro, the next his hands are on back on the guitar strings (or he’s firing up another one, when we know he couldn’t possibly have finished the first).
For the “Be-Bop Tango” finale, Frank invites folks (Carl, Rick and Jane) from the crowd to come up and dance to “whatever George sings.” “We’ve modified [the dance] for young contemporary audiences such as yourselves,” he deadpans. Soon enough, the guests are shucking and jiving to Duke’s start / stop nonsense syllables. Zappa admonishes them to loosen up, then calls on scantily-clad “professional harlot” / burlesque queen Lana (fresh off a strip tease for servicemen at Edwards Air Force Base) to show ‘em how it’s done.
There are no bonus materials per se—but do stick around for the Roxy end credits, which are juxtaposed with clips of Zappa and the gang tracking Inuit farce “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and (St. Alphonso’s Pancake Breakfast tie-in) “Father O’Blivion” in the studio for the Apostrophe album. We were fascinating watching the master at work in this capacity, and it’s sure to pooch your poodle, too.
Don’t be a naughty Eskimo. Pick up Roxy: The Movie for yourself or that beloved barking pumpkin in your life and check out (or perhaps relive) one of Zappa’s most talented ensembles at the height of their playful powers.
Roxy: The Movie available now on Amazon http://tinyurl.com/obqhxz9 and iTunes https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/frank-zappa-mothers-roxy-movie/id1044909928