In New York City, during Halloween 1977, band leader Frank Zappa had one of his sold-out concerts filmed for a movie he planned to put together in the vein of his previous midnight movie hit, 200 Motels. Unfortunately he couldn't find a distributor for his finished work and he even went as far as cutting the two-and-three-quarters hours film down to ninety minutes, but eventually the full length version was released which, just like its predecessor, was a midnight movie hit.
Guitar heroes don't get much cultier than Zappa, and his intricate, sardonic, self-indulgent brand of rock finds a perfect outlet here. As obsessive about the music as his fans were, Baby Snakes is as much a tribute to them as it is to his hard work and the dedication of his band. Moving between the poles of seeming as if the music will break down into a shambles at any moment and being as tightly performed as it's possible to be, the film shows Zappa at somewhere near his late seventies best, but is he preaching to the converted here?
Why, yes - yes he is! The film alternates between backstage footage, recording studio performances and the live concert itself, and the backstage stuff is the most disposable, featuring as it does the band messing about and playing up to the camera. Zappa doesn't take much part in these episodes, perhaps adding to his mystique, perhaps busy behind the scenes. Onstage, his speeches between the songs make the film come across like a political rally, where he outlines God's three biggest mistakes (men, women and poodles if you're interested) among other things.
But what adds to the cult of Baby Snakes isn't entirely up to Zappa's involvement. This is the animation of Bruce Bickford, and it resembles Nick Park's nightmares after he's partaken of too much Wensleydale, with insanely detailed clay animation of constantly adapting and transforming shapes. If you don't particularly like the music, these sequences will be the highlights, and Bickford is also interviewed by Zappa, where he is notably unilluminating about explaining his efforts ("disco out-freakage"?!). Sometimes sexual, sometimes horrific, the end result is always incredible.
Alas, there's too little of it, but I suppose something like that should always leave you wanting more. Meanwhile the music continues in its proggy, jazzy, metally way with its blend of jokiness taking itself very seriously - it's great to see the joyous reaction of the crowd. A handful of those attending are invited onstage for audience particpation, which turns out to be Zappa encouraging a few females to whip a male, but it's Zappa and his band who remain the stars of the show. If you're not sure about his music, then perhaps his films and are not the place to dive straight in, but Baby Snakes is rarely boring and you should see the longer version. Any fans will already love it.