In From Straight to Bizarre, a chronicle of the two record labels Frank Zappa operated from 1968 to 1973, music critics describe albums by some of Zappa’s more outlandish signings as works not of art but of social anthropology. The same can be said of the film: while it fails as a documentary, it succeeds as a document. It is clumsy, discursive, repetitive, and, despite a running time of 161 minutes, less than comprehensive. Yet as a source of information, it must be recommended to anyone interested in its subject.
That subject, Zappa fans should note, is not their hero’s music, but his efforts as an entrepreneur (or, perhaps more accurately, a curator — Bizarre and Straight’s releases were not remunerative). Although the labels released records by Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, the film focuses on other artists in the stable, whom the svengali selected for reasons that are sometimes obvious (his first releases were albums by Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley, comedy legends he felt had been mistreated) and in other cases require speculation. The acts ranged from a teenage female singer-songwriter (Sandy Hurvitz) to a paranoid-schizophrenic outsider artist (Wild Man Fischer), from a blues-rock phenom (Jeff Simmons) to a black a cappella group (the Persuasions), from groupies who had never made music before (the GTOs) to ex-folkies letting their freak flags fly (Tim Buckley and Judy Henske & Jerry Yester).
The artists that receive the most attention are Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band and Alice Cooper, who achieved the most critical and commercial success, respectively, of any Bizarre/Straight acts. Drummer John French and guitarist Bill Harkleroad of the Magic Band get plenty of space to describe the horrid conditions of working under Beefheart (in which they failed to recognize the brilliance of the music they were making because they were so beaten down psychologically) and the eccentric techniques they developed to assist their gifted but untrained leader in composing. Alice Cooper (the band) is represented by bassist Dennis Dunaway and drummer Neal Smith, who offer amusing anecdotes about their uninvited audition at Zappa’s house and the recording sessions for their debut, in which Zappa dispensed with the usual assurances for clean sound because he wanted the record to approximate the experience of driving by a garage where a band was playing.
Alice Cooper (the man) — the most high-profile surviving figure in this story — does not appear in interviews, nor do any of Zappa’s family members. Indeed, the film relies heavily on a narrow cast that, in poorly staged footage with unbalanced lighting and trebly sound, is allowed to ramble on unedited. Yet this gives the film a flowing conversational rhythm, and the ample talk — musicians and associates spinning firsthand yarns while a handful of (mostly British) biographers and critics provide geekily obsessive analysis — alternates with priceless archival footage and photographs and generous helpings of music. The chronological structure ensures that the film never bogs down in a specific subject; threads are left dangling and picked up later.
No director is credited, which may explain the lack of unifying vision. But from the interviews, two key observations emerge, forming the rough outline of a thesis: first, that the artists Zappa assembled under his aegis — confrontational comedians, unschooled amateurs, gospel-rooted vocalists, an avant-rock visionary, and a certified madman — paint a picture of his influences and tastes arguably more personal than his own music; and second, that the tangled legacies of Bizarre and Straight have prevented a lot of the music recorded for these labels from being available even in today’s infinite marketplace, a sadly ironic reversal of Zappa’s intention to give wider exposure to the eccentrics he championed. From Straight to Bizarre never develops these ideas into a coherent analysis, but the film provides plenty of grist for further contemplation by the curious.