Rock-music iconoclast Frank Zappa first scratched his cinematic itch with 200 Motels (1971), a silly experimental film that curried favor among stoners and weirdos while playing the midnight-movie circuit. Yet Zappa’s second picture, Baby Snakes, did not enjoy as warm a reception. An absurdly indulgent concert movie running nearly three hours and peppered with aimless animated sequences—as well as documentary footage of Zappa making the in-progress movie (how meta!)—Baby Snakes proved such a turnoff to distributors that Zappa ended up releasing the thing himself. No wonder. Even the extensive sequences that showcase Zappa and his band in performance are tedious, because Zappa’s shows blended irreverent comic monologues, lengthy jazz-style musical jams, and raunchy novelty numbers filled with juvenile sex jokes. There’s a reason Zappa subtitled Baby Snakes “A Movie About People Who Do Stuff That Is Not Normal.” Clearly, the man prided himself on shunning the mainstream, regarding the plasticine aspects of pop culture beneath contempt.
To his credit, Zappa backed up his stridency with exceptional musicianship and tremendous intelligence. Nonetheless, the price of telling mass audiences to fuck off is that they’ll say the same thing right back at you, so the best an insouciant artist like Zappa can ever hope for is fringe notoriety. Accordingly, Baby Snakes is only really of interest to those already grooving on Zappa’s vibe—nothing about this movie invites new people into the tent. Still, for patient viewers, Baby Snakes has a few minor amusements.
Zappa’s comedy bits occasionally merit a chuckle, like his rant about poodles (“God originally wanted to build a schnauzer, but he fucked up”), and the best musical sequences impress technically, if not necessarily melodically. That said, it’s hard to imagine many serious music fans choosing to endure trippy claymation scenes—and jokes involving blow-up dolls—in order to discover a few intricate guitar solos. As an interesting footnote, the phase of Zappa’s career that’s documented in Baby Snakes inadvertently led to the creation of an image-driven band—the very kind of sleek commercial enterprise that Zappa merrily skewers throughout Baby Snakes. Backing musicians Terry Bozzio (drums) and Patrick O’Hearn (bass), together with singer Dale Bozzio and guitarist Warren Cuccurullo (both of whom make cameos in Baby Snakes), formed New Wave band Missing Persons in 1980, generating the twitchy hits “Destination Unknown” and “Words.” That’s a long way from such Baby Snakes songs “Hot Poop” and “Titties ’n’ Beer.”
Baby Snakes: LAME