Frank Zappa
Baby Snakes
(Eagle Vision)

If we make an exception for his biggest fans (they're not few, and quite vocal), Frank Zappa's position in the current media panorama is not the most comfortable. In fact, his past popularity (better said, celebrity - the fame that came from his being considered a "bizarre", hence "public", figure) makes it impossible for him to be profiled in those trendy mags which reserve a lot of scorn for those who have already been popular in the past; on the other hand, his incorporation of "serious values" - though the actual representation could sometimes be quite funny - makes it almost impossible his being appreciated in an age when success as the fruit of the "lottery model" has taken the place of hard work (a long, difficult concept that's synthetically known to Zappa fans as "the theory of the 'honest blow job'"). Hence, a lot of people (nowadays I would define the dividing line as being the "under-forty") which in all likelihood have never even heard of the Maestro. It would be extremely paradoxical if one of the most dangerous among the "devil's inventions" - i.e., video - proved to play a big part in making people appreciate one of the most complex auditive forms ever - which doesn't necessarily mean "difficult" - in rock.

Shot in 1977 during Halloween (dig those clothes), rarely shown in US theatres, later released in VHS format, Baby Snakes is now available in DVD-V, with a fine video quality and a very good (and versatile) audio. About 2h.45' long, the movie gives a pretty complete picture of a period of Zappa's career, and also gives the viewer some useful keys to better understand Zappa's work - see the way he practically owns the stage, his directing and arranging "in the moment", his careful attention to detail (check the vocal rehearsal of some subdivisions of the vocal parts of the title-track), his expressiveness on guitar, the personality of the players on their instruments, above all Terry Bozzio's drums, Tommy Mars's keyboards, and the vocal parts and stage presence of a still-unknown Adrian Belew. It's the same line-up of the Sheik Yerbouty album (the repertory coming in large part from that album, with significant exceptions such as Disco Boy, The Black Page #2, Punky's Whips, Camarillo Brillo, Muffin Man and San Ber'dino), with the added presence of old Mother Roy Estrada, who is featured in some very "Zappa-like" moments. We have obviously some moments of "audience participation time". But the most stimulating visual aspect is without a doubt represented by Bruce Bickford's clay animation work, to which the movie reserves a large - but in no way excessive - portion of its time; just as stimulating are the dialogues between Zappa and Bickford, whose tone is halfway between lysergic and surreal.

Beppe Colli

© Beppe Colli 2004 | Feb. 24, 2004