Frank Zappa
Roxy - The Movie
(DVD-V + CD)
(Eagle Vision)

One knows all too well that waiting for something to appear for a long, long time - in this particular case, a few decades (I'll add a personal touch: on June 23, 2013 I received an e-mail that said "the Roxy movie is on its way") - can by itself create the fact of one being acutely disappointed, one's ever-growing expectations in the end provoking a reaction which can be perfectly summarized in the immortal words: "Is there all there is?".

So it's with enormous pleasure that I say that, for once, "all's well that ends well". Roxy - The Movie is a great piece of work that will keep people pleasantly engaged for a very long time, this being true of both Zappa fans from a long time ago and newcomers who wonder what all the fuss is about. Just one caveat: one will need to have two sets of handkerchiefs ready, the first being consumed while watching the movie, the second coming handy after one's video set has been switched off, given the fact that nowadays such a perfect mix of humour and imagination, perfectly served by prodigious technical skills, can only be described as an impossibility. Which really hurts, even more so when one realizes that this lesson from about forty years ago was obviously unaware of our present sad conditions.

An album that needs no introduction, Roxy & Elsewhere (1974) always appeared to incorporate the promise of a movie, as it was made apparent by the track Be-Bop Tango (a dance contest on vinyl?), and by allusions that appeared here and there ("Ladies and gentlemen, watch Ruth. All through this film Ruth has been thinking: 'What can I possibly do?'"). Not to mention those long song intros.

What those who attended the concerts did know was that, yes indeed, a concert was being filmed. A movie that would make it possible for those who weren't there to experience "in person" that beautiful combination of elements.

Alas!, accidents can happen. In this case, a serious malfunction in the audio-video synchronization that made the whole movie impossible to watch - and release.

Today's digital technology has finally come to the rescue, after several fruitless attempts in the past decades.

Prodigious editing work was done by John Albarian, also co-producer, who clearly explains everything in his quite detailed liner notes. Mix and mastering work by Bruce Botnick, an engineer that - from his work with The Doors onward - really needs no introduction.

Total movie length is about 90', with about 20' more as bonus material. It had been said that about 21h. had been shot, but since the group performed four concerts of about 80' each, with a total length of about 320', it's obvious that those 21h. were the sum of all that had been shot by the four cameras then in operation at the Roxy. Something's missing, of course - it's sad watching the last frames of Village Of The Sun ("V-llleee-g") - but hey...

I've just discovered that Roxy & Elsewhere was recorded on 8, 9, 10 December, 1973, not 10, 11, 12 as per the album's original liner notes. After what I assume to have been a day of rehearsals, the group played two concerts per day, the musicians wearing the same clothes in order to facilitate video editing.

The line-up: Frank Zappa, Ruth Underwood, Ralph Humphrey, Chester Thompson, Bruce Fowler, Tom Fowler, George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock.

It's an ensemble that follows the one that in 1973 toured the United States and Europe, where a very strong front-line - trumpet, trombone, winds and reeds, violin - and the fact of Zappa being the only singer made it possible to have a real "pocket orchestra" that was easier to keep afloat money-wise when compared to the Grand/Petit Wazoo of the previous year.

The line-up that appears in Roxy - The Movie manages to successfully combine Zappa's "orchestral" climates with a strong "entertaining" factor. On bass, Tom Fowler anchors the whole. A fantastic keyboard player, George Duke had grown as a singer, his fine falsetto vocals here acting as a counterpoint to the "hard" Blues/R&B approach of Napoleon Murphy Brock, a musician whose remarkable stage presence almost hides his skills on tenor sax and flute. Bruce Fowler is a prodigious trombone soloist. On percussion, Ruth Underwood literally explodes in a rhythm section that also features two drummers: Chester Thompson, here mostly acting as "groove player"; and Ralph Humphrey, whose role most of the time is that of a "parts player" of great skills and precision (interested readers are invited to (re)discover the drums and percussion parts featured on Over-Nite Sensation).

Roxy - The Movie is available in different formats. I watched the DVD-V edition, in stereo. My copy also has a CD with about 70' from the concert, a nice bonus.

It goes without saying that watching Roxy - The Movie will be a very different experience for those who know Roxy & Elsewhere from memory - it's quite disconcerting at first to hear a spoken intro that one has listened to a hundred times before suddenly change its course - when compared to those who have seldom listened to said album, if at all.

The concert's high point for me - readers beware: this writer has listened to the original album for more than forty years - is the track titled Cheepnis-Percussion: an impeccable performance of the rhythm strata of Cheepnis, which the group then performs, which perfectly illustrates the "hidden complexity" of many "commercial" pieces composed by Zappa.

What can I say to those too young to have experienced those times? That this was a time when music such as the one performed by Frank Zappa and his various groups could fill very large places, a deafening applause greeting the announcement "Ian Underwood!".

Of course, "summarizing" this music is simply impossible. I'll try to say something.

First thing, keep an eye on George Duke's work on a simple set of keyboards, which I'll describe for those who came later. Facing the stage, a Clavinet D6 placed on a Wurlitzer electric piano. Facing the audience, a mono synth - an ARP Odyssey - placed on a Fender Rhodes electric piano. To the left of the Odyssey, an "effects box" where I think I can see a tape echo - probably the classic Echoplex - and a ring modulator. Pay attention to Duke's intelligent, original approach when it comes to the Clavinet, also the sound he gets from the Wurlitzer, which is quite different from the sound one usually heard coming from the instrument.

After a spoken introduction, first track is Cosmik Debris, which the following year will close Side One of Apostrophe ('), but which at the time was still unreleased. There's a tenor sax solo - that to me sounds la King Curtis - after Zappa calls "Napoleon!". Watch Zappa smile during the solo, something that shows his deep love for Blues/R&B, like it was for Don "Sugarcane" Harris's violin and vocals. There's a fine solo by George Duke on Wurlitzer and Clavinet D6, then Zappa plays a guitar solo with wha-wha.

Penguin In Bondage has the famous spoken intro, but the guitar solo is different from the one that appears on Roxy & Elsewhere (the one on the album coming from "elsewhere").

T'Mershi Duween has excellent percussion work and that "Finnish-sounding" theme.

Dog/Meat - which combines The Dog Breath Variations and Uncle Meat - has fantastic work from drums and percussion, Zappa himself adding his percussion skills to the piece. Keep your ears open for Bruce Fowler's trombone work.

The intricate composition called RDNZL features two great solos on trombone and guitar. It also highlights the tenor sax and the Odyssey.

Inca Roads - a piece which at the time was still unreleased on record - is played at a slower tempo at first, which reminded me of a Broadway tune, then it accelerates. Those who remember the version featured on One Size Fits All won't be surprised by the solo played by George Duke on Fender Rhodes and ARP Odyssey. There's also a fine trombone solo, but no guitar solo.

There's a fragment from the end of Village Of The Sun, followed by a fine performance of Echidna's Arf (Of You), with great percussion work.

Don't You Ever Wash That Thing? shows some "Forties Jazz" seen through the Zappa prism. It features a swinging trombone solo with a perfect backing by the rhythm section, followed by a solo on the Fender Rhodes, then it's time for...

Cheepnis-Percussion, which in my opinion, as stated above, is the album's high point.

At the end, Zappa asks the group if they think they can play it again with no mistakes as a song.

So we have Cheepnis as performed on Roxy & Elsewhere, but with no overdubbing.

This is followed by a fine performance of I'm The Slime, with a fine wha-wha guitar solo by Zappa.

Big Swifty has a perfect reading. There's an excellent Duke solo on Fender Rhodes plus ARP Odyssey, then a guitar solo. Pay attention to the beautiful performance of the knotty closing theme.

After a long spoken intro, Be-Bop Tango (Of The Old Jazzmen's Church) features a complex theme highlighting winds, drums, percussion, and electric piano. There's a tenor sax/trombone duel, a brief trombone solo, then it's time for the famous "Audience Participation Time". So we can finally see, dancing those brief, jerky notes sung by George Duke: Carl, Rick, and Jane. Then, Lena. Then, Brenda. "Brenda is a professional harlot", said Zappa, and those three dictionaries I consulted all told me that the meaning of "harlot" ("noun archaic", and it was already archaic at the time, given the fact that one of the dictionaries I consulted is as old as the album Roxy & Elsewhere) is "prostitute". We can also see in action "Dunt's ex wife" (if I'm not mistaken, she's the lady who appears in the foreground on the album cover). Like on the album, after a "cut", we have a Blues/Boogie aroma, complete with a guitar solo.

Come the end credits, we have audio and video excerpts of studio work for the well-known tracks Don't Eat The Yellow Snow and Father O'Blivion.

Bonus material:

Pigmy Twilight: a fine performance, with Pamela Miller acting as "disturbance".

The Idiot Bastard Son, here impeccably played and sung.

Dickie's Such An Asshole is an orchestrated Blues/R&B, with a fine George Duke solo on Fender Rhodes and a guitar solo through a wha-wha plus a phaser (provided I'm not mistaken, that pedal looks like a Mutron to me).

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2015 | Nov. 14, 2015