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Baby Snakes - DVD Review

By Adam Sohmer
Expectations & Reactions:
There are certain phrases that older folk get to use in increasing amounts over the passing years, such as, "When I was your age…," "Pass the Metamucil," and my personal favorite, "If you look real hard you can see me in the background of this here rock and roll movie..."

If you look real hard, you can see me in the background of this here rock and roll movie, just as the camera quickly pans the crowd waiting to enter the Palladium theater to experience yet another round of Frank Zappa's Halloween concerts, this time in 1977. A diehard Zappa fan, devoting as many dollars as my part-time job would accrue just to hear FZ play every time he brought his band to NYC, it is possible to witness locks of my then-bountiful mane as I waited to hear one of his more stellar lineups, in a venue that boasted excellent acoustics and mostly unobstructed views.

Though it played only a week in NYC followed by a week in LA, Zappa's Baby Snakes is not so much a rock movie as it is a Zappa movie, featuring ample amounts of music surrounded by visual experiments that are highlighted by extensive interviews with clay animation artist Bruce Bickford whose output is seen throughout the film, particularly during the first hour.

Unlike his 200 Motels, Baby Snakes, released in '79, is a stream of conscious blend of music and imagery that is a fun sampling of the maestro's talent for building great stand-alone concerts that were equal parts structure and improvisation, while representing the out-of-control ego of an artist who seemed to really believe that everything he touched was worthy of release. Its bloated 169-minute running time is restored after once being snipped to a paltry 90-minutes. Neither version feels quite right, but at least the longer version represents Zappa's vision.

Look & Listen:
Being the great sonic adventurer that he was, Zappa set out to create a multichannel mix eons before such a move was expected, let alone practical. Quadraphonic separation was achieved through the use of massive electronic additions to the Victoria Theater in New York where, in '79, the film enjoyed a brief stint running 24/7 for a solid two weeks.

The quadraphonic blueprint was adhered to by Dweezil Zappa, who worked with Zappa Family Trust Vaultermeister Joe Travers, after the latter unearthed the original mix when sifting through the company vaults. Expanding the soundfield to a full five channels plus LFE led the team to place more of the vocals in the center channel (natch) without changing their role in the original front/back scheme of things. The front left and right channels enjoy the biggest workout of the evening, banging back and forth between full blown concert sequences, interviews with claymation artitst Bruce Bickford, tape collages providing sonic accompaniment for said claymation, and random backstage banter.

Sound quality remains mostly superb, especially during rehearsal and studio scenes when the audio consists of music minus the crowd noise or Zappa's Master of Ceremonies diatribes. Imaging remains strong, with all instruments audible and believably placed in the soundfield. Speaker drivers are pushed to the max as Terry Bozzio beats the hell out of his drumkit while howling his growl of a vocal, or when Tommy Mars belts out the title song by way of an audio adjustment that makes his voice sound like a high-pitched but in-tune space alien. (Or as I imagine one would sound. It's late.)

Digression: the banter is one reason we as a race are allowed to skip to the next scene. What should have been links to stronger segments instead ramble on for many minutes at a time, giving us all a look at backstage rough housing and all around fun that does not make a dent on the big screen.

No matter how drawn out or convoluted some of the scenes may be, music is at the core of nearly every frame, so it isn't surprising that all of the important rehabilitation efforts were focused on the soundtrack, not the video. The Baby Snakes DVD barely improves on the visual quality of the mid-80's VHS version, though to be fair the film was captured using mostly generic handheld 16mm cameras. On-stage scenes look the best, and I kinda wish he set out to make a straight concert flick instead of a muddled hodge podge of stuff he found interesting at the time. (Zappa turned to a more familiar concert video format with 1984's Does Humor Belong in Music with less than spectacular results.)

The resolution may be grainy, but Zappa used the tools and teams at his disposal to create surprisingly sharp, snappy concert sequences that transfer well to the small screen. Baby Snakes looks just fine on a 32" CRT, but beware of any display in the 61" range lest extreme bouts of blurriness don't faze you.

Extras & Highlights:

This is where it gets a little strange. All efforts extra-wise were placed on the physical package, not the program. The disc is adorned with the Baby Snakes trailer and two TV commercials, along with a preview of the Roxy concert video completed by Zappa in '87, but not yet released. (No e.t.a. is offered.)

Ah, but crack open the keep case to discover a miniature file folder stuffed with assorted papers designed to emulate a fantasy government program targeting alternative entertainment, including Zappa's film. The inserts were conceived by Zappa's widow, Gail, who actively manages all aspects of her late husband's output and related businesses.

Rounding out the package is a pair of No-D glasses, with eyeholes effectively closed to prevent accidental viewing of disturbing images. Zappa introduced the No-D insert when his Honker Home Video imprint rolled out several VHS titles in the mid 80's, Baby Snakes included. The message feels forced, but it's fun to peruse a creatively assembled package that has more in common with out of print elaborate vinyl albums than it does with modern-day DVD cases.

Menus & Interface:
After sifting through several minutes of ramblings about a fantasy government plot, the menu appears as the title track plays on a loop in the background. Viewers can choose from the film, chapter selections, More Stuff (not-so-special features), Audio Set-Up, and Liner Notes about the DVD. Background imagery is comprised of references to various Zappa projects and elements of the film.

Storyline & Syllabus:
Baby Snakes is a movie, "…about people who do stuff that is not normal." The tagline pretty much sums it up. Concert footage, backstage scenes, claymation, and combinations thereof add up to a film that offers much more than the standard rock biographies or performances, just as Zappa's fans would expect.

Cast & Crew:
° Frank Zappa: guitar, vocals, band leader, composer, original four-channel mix (1979), subsequent two-channel mix (1987), producer and director
° Adrian Belew: guitar, vocals
° Tommy Mars: keyboards, vocals
° Peter Wolf: keyboards
° Terry Bozzio: drums, vocals
° Ed Mann: percussion
° Patrick O'Hearn: bass
° Roy Estrada: vocals
° John Smothers: bodyguard
° Bruce Bickford: claymation
° Gail Zappa: DVD executive producer
° Dweezil Zappa: 5.1 soundtrack producer
° Joe Travers: vaultermeisterment & production
° Kent Huffnagle: 5.1 engineer
° Matthew Schwartz: DVD authoring Digital Studios Group
° Keith Lawler: DVD layout and design for Intercontinental Absurdities

Conclusions & Afterthoughts:
Baby Snakes is a film for Zappa fans, period. On its own, the music would serve as a memorable FZ introduction for the uninitiated - his 70's era bands combined the best of arena rock sound with more avant garde sensibilities - but the scenes sandwiched between the opening and closing credits will entertain longtime enthusiasts who hang on every twist and turn offered by one of the more adventurous composers of the 20th century. For everybody else, wait for the Roxy DVD, which will hopefully be released later this year.

What did you think?

View all articles by Adam Sohmer
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