Some people call Judge Victor Valdivia "Uncle Meat," for reasons you really don't want to know about.
"It was a nice feeling to play in the best band in the world in the Sixties, and I'll always think that we were the best band in the world. Nobody will ever convince me otherwise."—Mothers drummer Jimmy Carl Black
The back of the package on this DVD reads "Not authorized by the estate or family of Frank Zappa," so it would be completely understandable for Zappa fans to steer clear of this DVD as fast as possible. Usually, "unauthorized" means that the DVD has no music by the profiled artist but does have plenty of useless interviews with fourth-rate press hacks and other nobodies cobbled together into a tedious and incoherent mess. For a perfect example, see Eagle Rock's Down the Tracks series. In this case, however, fans should reconsider. Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in the 1960s is astoundingly good, with contributions from several important members and collaborators from Zappa's original band, the Mothers of Invention. Even more amazingly, the DVD's producers have managed to license many crucial songs from both Zappa and his contemporaries. That this DVD is unauthorized only means there are no interviews with members of Zappa's family, but otherwise, it's of high enough quality to sit comfortably alongside any of Zappa's authorized DVDs.
The high quality of this DVD is matched only by the importance of the story it tells; …in the 1960s chronicles the early days of Zappa's career and the formation and breakup of his first major band, the Mothers (later known, at their record label's insistence, as the Mothers of Invention). It details the recording of their first six albums: Freak Out! (1966), Absolutely Free, We're Only In It for the Money (both 1967), Lumpy Gravy, Cruising With Ruben & the Jets (both 1968), and Uncle Meat (1969). These albums stand out as some of the most influential and significant of Zappa's lengthy career. In fact, they shaped the direction of Zappa's music so forcefully that one critic interviewed here opines, with some justification, that Zappa spent the rest of his musical career essentially rewriting and rerecording those early records. His music may have gotten more intricate, the technology more sophisticated, and his collaborators more accomplished, but in many ways he was never really able to improve on the ideas he pioneered in the '60s.
If all this DVD did was discuss those records, it would at least be worth a look. Most Zappa biographies put more emphasis on his commercially successful '70s records (particularly 1973's Over-Nite Sensation and 1974's '(Apostrophe)) while shortchanging this key period in his career. What makes this DVD so valuable is that it contains some amazing performance footage of the original Mothers performing music from this period. There are clips taken from Zappa's film Uncle Meat, clips of the original Mothers in New York in 1968, and even footage from a disastrous show in Germany in 1969 where members of the Weathermen attempted to start a riot when Zappa refused to champion their methods. Though, sadly, no song is included in its entirety, there's enough from each performance to get a very good idea of what it was like to attend an original Mothers concert of the era.
The interviews and narrative are also handled well. Original Mothers Jimmy Carl Black, Bunk Gardner, Don Preston, and Art Tripp all have some incredibly interesting stories about the founding of the Mothers and their life recording and touring. Several critics discuss the albums the band released during this period, and it's fascinating to see the differing perspectives, with some openly disdaining the more experimental music on these albums (such as "The Chrome Plated Megaphone of Destiny" from We're Only In It for the Money) in favor of the more straightforward songs. This is one way in which this DVD being unauthorized actually benefits: there's no approved viewpoint on Zappa's music, and no effort to label everything as equally good. Another significant difference is that Zappa doesn't always come off well. Although the surviving Mothers give Zappa his due as a composer and bandleader, they don't always have complimentary things to say about his management of the band. Zappa's decision in 1970 to disband the original Mothers and go it alone is a particular bone of contention. Because it's impossible to get Zappa's perspective today (he died in 1993), it may be tempting to dismiss their complaints, but they don't come off as bitter or greedy, just disappointed. All of this is told in a well-written account that is dense with information yet so easy to follow that even viewers who are not overly familiar with Zappa's music will find it absorbing.
It also helps immeasurably that the DVD's producers decided to license so much of Zappa's music. It's hard to overstate how useful this is. In most unauthorized DVDs, when people discuss a particular song, viewers are forced to recall it from memory, if they're familiar with it. Here, the specific passage or piece is immediately available so that viewers can judge for themselves what any given interviewee is talking about. The DVD's producers also made a wise decision in licensing additional music from artists like the Jefferson Airplane, the Fugs, and Edgar Varese. These songs help put Zappa's music in the historical and artistic context it deserves.
Technically, the DVD is decent. The 4:3 full-screen transfer and PCM stereo mix are both decent, getting the job done adequately, even if some of the archival footage is less than great. The only extra of note, apart from some text bios, are some ten minutes of extended interviews which add a few minor tidbits but are otherwise not essential. The main feature is so comprehensive that it's hard to imagine what could be missing.
Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention in the 1960s is an absolute must for anyone, newcomer or longtime fan, who has any interest in Zappa's music. It's not absolutely free, but it is absolutely not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: MVD Visual
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