Baby Snakes Review

Baby Snakes is the ultimate Frank Zappa movie. By this I mean that fans will no doubt love it, whilst non-believers will do the complete opposite such is the manner in which Zappa (who also directs) has captured something of his essence on-screen. Indeed, there doesn’t seem to be an in-between when it comes to FZ and in this respect Baby Snakes could serve as the perfect litmus test for the uninitiated – though be warned, those who land on the wrong side of the fence will find its epic 164-minute running time something of a slog.

Released in 1979, Baby Snakes was Zappa’s second feature following 200 Motels, a bizarre video-shot “documentary” which was co-directed with Tony Palmer and featured Keith Moon, if memory serves, as a banana/nun. There’s nothing quite so outré about this particular effort, though as Zappa has said himself (in a quote which also serves as this disc’s tagline), this is “a movie about people who do things that is not normal.” Ostensibly, this means the man himself, as well as his band members given that Baby Snakes is essentially a concert movie filmed in New York on Halloween of 1979. But then we also have the various gig goers, made-up in hats, masks and glitter, and a certain Bruce Bickford, animator extraordinaire, but more of him later.

As a concert movie Baby Snakes fares well even if it’s not quite in the league of The Last Waltz, say, or Monterey Pop, and doesn’t have quite the same significance as Gimme Shelter or Woodstock. The expected favourites are played – ‘Bobby Brown Goes Down’, ‘Disco Boy’ – and the entire affair has the kind of theatrical, near-Warholian blend you’d expect from Zappa and his merry men. Moreover, it’s been captured handheld by three cameramen, each of whom seem to find themselves in the right places at the right times; Baby Snakes isn’t an especially beautiful film to look at, but then it does capture its moment. As for its duration, this will surely be down to the individual and how big (or small) they prefer their doses of Zappa. His unique blend of funk, jazz fusion, prog rock and heavy metal really does sound like the work of a one-off and is incredibly wilful with it. Personally speaking, I could have done with at least half an hour removed, but then with music this offbeat, it’s impossible to ignore.

Furthermore, we have the work of Bickford to enjoy as Baby Snakes essentially contains another movie within itself, this one devoted solely to the animator. He’d previously collaborated with Zappa before on the 1974 TV special A Token of His Extreme and is here “interviewed” by his director as well as given the chance to showcase some of his pieces. Though hardly the most cogent of speakers (sample of him describing what his work is all about: “Gregory Peck discovers this castle and decides it’ll make a great disco”), the animation itself is truly remarkable. Bickford specialises in visceral, freaked out claymation which continually sees people and nightmarish situations morph into one and other – hardly the kind of work to sit comfortably alongside the efforts of Aardman studios! Both visually and technically (he makes astonishing use of perspective, given his mini-dramas an engrossing 3D-type quality) it’s never less than impressive and only enhanced by the accompaniment of Zappa’s music and special effects. Indeed, the two are as rarefied as each and make for perfect bedfellows, but then it may very well be Bickford’s contribution that allows Baby Snakes some kind of crossover (especially as this particular title is the only item from his filmography currently available on disc).

The Disc

Though shown theatrically at a ratio of 1.85:1, Eagle Vision’s Region 2 release is framed at a ratio of 1.33:1 (as was the Region 1). Of course, this would suggest two possible situations, either that the film has been cropped or is being show open matte, and of the two I would go for the latter. It is often the case that the image looks a little too tall with boom mikes occasionally straying into shot, which would suggest open matte. Then again, seeing as the film was mostly shot handheld, it is difficult to conclusively state that this is the case, as is the fact that Bickford’s animation is just too damned weird to discern whether it has been cropped or not. Either way, the film certainly isn’t unwatchable, though it is worth noting that this is an NTSC to PAL transfer which gives the image a softer quality than should be expected as well as producing occasional signs of ghosting and artefacting.

As for the soundtrack, Baby Snakes comes with options of either Zappa’s original stereo or the 2003 DD5.1 remix by his son Dweezil. Both sound remarkably fine, though the latter is perhaps the more expansive of the two. Indeed, this mix is reason alone for picking up the disc even if does demonstrate certain flaws image-wise.

The supplementary features, however, are a little light on the ground. We get the original theatrical trailer and TV spots (all of which manage to encapsulate Baby Snakes’ oddball qualities despite their brief durations) plus a promo for The Roxy Recordings, though as far as I can tell this particular release has never seen the light of day. Elsewhere, the disc and booklet provide various film notes, review snippets and disc/filmography, plus there are a pair of make-yourself No-D glasses for people who are normal.

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