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opusSOUNDTRACK: FRANK ZAPPA-Baby Snakes [the movie & soundtrack] (1979).

babyThis is sort of a review of the soundtrack album to Baby Snakes, but really it’s a review of the film, which I just watched over the last 4 days.  Baby Snakes (A Movie About People Who Do Stuff That is Not Normal) was not as depraved as the subtitle (and the history of Zappa) would lead you to believe.  In fact, primarily it is a concert film.  There are a bunch of other things in the film as well, but easily 3/4 is a live Halloween concert in New York City.

More on that in a moment.

In today’s market, the other parts of the film would simply be packaged as bonus features on a DVD.  The claymation and subsequent interview with the artist Bruce Bickford would be a (somewhat) interesting short film, and a lot of the behind the scenes footage would also go well as a bonus attachment to the concert.

But I won’t get ahead of myself.  The claymation sequences are, frankly, amazing to watch.  There’s a clip on YouTube of Frank on the Mike Douglas Show (which is a trippy/weird thing to watch in and of itself) in which he shows an example of the claymation from the film and from elsewhere. Unlike the amazing work of Aardman on Wallace and Gromit, Bickford’s work is not polished.  However, each new image slowly morphs into the next in a series of mindblowing sequences…there are scenes of sex and violence and driving and mountains and flowers, and naughty bits and vomiting and you name it.  It is the most stream-of-consciousness looking visuals I may have ever seen.

During the sequences, Frank interviews Bickford.  The interview is pretty long, and it sounds like Bickford may be completely stoned. I tuned out a lot of what he was saying.

The backstage footage is the kind of sillydebauchery that you imagine happens back stage: there’s a blow up sex doll, there’s most of the band members telling little stories about what’s going on and there’s Adrian Belew dressing in drag.  But again, the editing is not great, and the footage is just sort of randomly inserted…the worst part is when Adrian Belew is actually talking OVER the Frank and the Devil negotiation during “Titties and Beer.”  Boo!

So, both of these segments could have worked very nicely as their own short films, rather than being inserted into this longer piece.  In fact, the haphazardness of the proceedings seems even worse when you realize that they are no longer inserted into the film after about the two hour mark: the last stretch of the concert is interruption free.  The problem is that the whole film is nearly three hours long, and since he intersperses these interviews/animations in between live footage, watching five or ten minutes of animation feels disjointed (overall, the editing leaves something to be desired)

The live footage, however, is pretty amazing.  Watching Terry Bozzio beat the crap out of the drums while singing/narrating is pretty fantastic.  And Andrian Belew is amazing to watch at any time. It’s also fun to see the percussionist going nuts on what must be a hundred different instruments (including the ever-present Zappa Xylophone.)

But clearly the highlight is watching Zappa.  Zappa conducts a whirlwind percussion jam, giving the musicians the key (A is a triangle of two hands, C is his hand shaped like a C) before getting them to strike their chords.  It is a fun improv moment, and shows that even back in the 70s, he was interested in composing music, not just writing rock songs.

Incidentally, the soundtrack, of Baby Snakes contains many of the live songs from the film,(but not the improv)  including the excellent “Punky’s Whips” and “Black Page #2.”  The soundtrack is short (especially compared to the movie) but is really great.

Watching Zappa solo on the guitar is also pretty amazing.  I’ve listened to all of his guitar solo releases.  And he simply knows the guitar backwards and forwards.  So, this concert is a good way to just sit back and watch him play.  But it’s also a good way to watch him interact with the fans.  Frank is right there with the fans, shaking hands, slapping high fives (and doing this while he is playing an extended solo as well).  His charisma is undeniable.

And his charisma is in great evidence during the audience participation section where some of the thronging masses are invited onstage to enact a scene out of Frank’s imagination (a young volunteer is “whipped” by a young woman whose face is painted white with flowers on it, and her friend Donna U Wanna).  The woman in the white makeup is all over Frank when she’s down in the crowd, too.  While Frank is singing, she starts kissing him and even taking his hair out of a ponytail holder–and he never flubs a word!  What a professional.

By the end of the film you kind of forget about the editing, but in the first 2/3, mostly you come away thinking that the editing is just not very good.  Much of the claymation is repeated (some is repeated three times).  While I understand that Frank reedited the film down to 90 minutes in a failed attempt to find a distributor, and I know everyone is happy to get this unedited version of the film, nevertheless I think the whole film should be broken up into smaller films for maximum enjoyment.

[READ: January 2008 ] Opus

I was a huge huge huge fan of Bloom County back in the day. It was one of my favorite comics, and I can recall doodling Opuses and Bill the Cats during downtime in class.  I sort of liked Outland, but then, I didn’t get a paper, so I never really saw those.  And, lo and behold, I didn’t even KNOW about the Opus strip.  I also just read that he just finished the Opus strip in November.  The final panel is supremely touching and is available here (what appeared in the Sunday paper) and then here (the link that’s in the cartoon).

I found this book remaindered, and figured I’d have to give it a try.  And it filled me with nostalgia! (more…)

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