Alex Winter's 5 essential Frank Zappa albums may 'blow the lid off your brain!'

Clark Collis
·4 min read

Alex Winter does not claim to be a fanatic when it comes to the music of Frank Zappa. So why did the Bill & Ted franchise star-turned-director decide to detail the life and career of the music icon in his new film Zappa (out Nov. 27), his follow-up to this year's Showbiz Kids?

"I thought he was a uniquely compelling individual and his life story was so fascinating," says Winter. "I’m interested in people who are at odds both with themselves and with the times around them but who are also engaged with the times, people whose demons or inner conflicts are also represented in the ways they engage with the world."

Winter approached the musician's widow Gail Zappa through Frank and Gail's musician-actor son Ahmet.

"I came to know Ahmet quite well over the years," says Winter. "I asked him if he could set up a meeting with me and Gail. He said he could, but that I should really not expect success, that a lot of people had asked her for permission to do this and she’d told pretty much everyone 'No.' You pitch a lot of docs and I'm used to being told no, so I don’t really care. I thought, at the very least, it’ll be 20 minutes of my life and she’s a very interesting person I've always wanted to meet. He set up a meeting and Gail really liked the take. I’m not a Zappa aficionado and I think that’s what she was looking for — someone who was really interested in him, and saw what mattered about him, but wasn't a fanatic."

Gail gave Winter access to Zappa's voluminous archives.

"It was a vast archive," says Winter. "We took years and went through it. We spent two years just preserving vault material. It was a daunting task."

In making the film, Winter did inevitably become somewhat of a Zappa expert. So which five albums by the guitarist would be the best introduction to his work? Winter makes his choices below.

Hot Rats (1969)

"For me, the Zappa gateway is Hot Rats, an album he made in ’69 when he really began to pioneer very sophisticated recording techniques," shares Winter. "He also had an all-star band of musicians on this, everyone from Jean-Luc Ponty to Shuggie Otis and Captain Beefheart. Just one of the great albums of all time. And, if you put this on and have no way in, maybe take a beat and move on to the second one."

The Yellow Shark (1993)

"Yellow Shark is at the other end of Zappa’s career. It’s viewed as serious classical music, but isn’t rarified. It’s beautiful, it’s accessible, it’s got humor, it’s a really fun gorgeous album," says Winter. "I finally realized when I listened to Yellow Shark that Frank Zappa is not a rock & roll musician, so I stopped worrying about whether he fitted into some form of rock or not. Really, he’s beyond rock, he’s kind of in his own genre, but closer to avant-garde classical, I would say."

Apostrophe (1974)

"If you’ve made it past those two, at that point I tell people to go to what most people consider to be Zappa’s heyday, which is the band he had in the mid-'70s and there’s a bunch of albums that are all accessible," the actor says. "My favorite of those is Apostrophe. People love Joe’s Garage and Over-Nite Sensation, but I would go Apostrophe. Very accessible, sort of typifies classic ‘70s rock in some ways, but through the extremely unique Zappa lens. A great album, lots of fun."

Freak Out! (1966)

"If you've made it this far, you’re probably willing to keep going, and if you are, I would tell you to go all the way back to the very beginning to Freak Out!, which is the debut album by the Mothers of Invention," Winter notes. "Phenomenal album. Very mid-‘60s, very much smacks of that era, before he had a lot of his artistic identity worked out, so it’s a little raw, but a great album."

Civilization Phaze III (1994)

"Last, but very much not least for me, if you've gotten through those four, then I think you’re ready for Civilization Phase III, which he made at the end of his life and was actually released posthumously in ’94," he reveals. "It is really sophisticated electronic music. Having said that, it’s a blast, it’s hilarious, and it's beautiful. But I would not start with Zappa's electronic music, I think it would blow the lid off your brain!"

Zappa features interviews with Gail Zappa, Steve Vai, and Pamela Des Barres, among others. The film opens in theaters and on demand Nov. 27.

Watch the trailer for Zappa above.

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