Though fans will likely go out of their way to see it, those familiar with Frank Zappa will probably not gain any major insight from the new documentary by Thorsten Schütte, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Anyone who already gets Zappa, however, will easily fall in love again. But those with only a passing familiarity with the icon and an interest in popular music’s tension between culture and business, need to see this movie. Made with the cooperation of some of his family (son Ahmet Zappa and recently deceased wife Gail Zappa have executive producer credits), Eat That Question is a refreshing declaration of a man’s desire to express himself freely in the face of moralizing doctrine imposed by the few, the powerful and the sheeple.
Beyond current tensions among Zappa’s children, it was probably a good idea to keep family and experts out of the way of Zappa’s own words. The documentary is a mostly chronological patchwork of Zappa’s TV appearances, be they performances or interviews, some of which have been rarely seen. The film feels a bit lopsided toward the interviews, only offering a few long tastes of Zappa’s live performances, but allowing time for the conversations with reporters and TV personalities reveals the obsessions and ideas that informed his music. And what ideas they were!
He slags off so-called Zappa diehards who only care about his early albums with The Mothers of Invention, calling these kinds of fans myopic in their appreciation of his music and beholden to “the gospel” of “Rolling Stone” writers. “I hate to see anybody with a closed mind,” he says. Early in the documentary, he also discredits the interview process as two steps removed from an inquisition. He calls it “unnatural.” That idea sets the tone for the rest of the film, where Schütte, a German TV documentary filmmaker, presents archival footage of Zappa he dug up at television stations editing them alongside Zappa performances and even intimate moments of the man at home composing. Many musicians will tell you that communicating through music and communicating through speech are two different things. Zappa is a man who preferred to communicate through music, so as Zappa’s words are bounced of interviewers’ questions, this gap comes to define Eat That Question. The dichotomy of these forms of communication is something Zappa struggled with for his entire career, from a clean-cut appearance in the late’50s on “The Steve Allen Show” playing a bicycle to one of his final interviews on NBC’s “Today Show,” from 1993, that I never forgot seeing on broadcast television.
More than once, Zappa seems a bit frustrated about his cult of personality, noting people know him more for what he says on TV than buy his music. Some confuse this with snobbery, but it’s a genuine frustration in the line between singing and speaking. It’s worth noting that his discography is intense. He released 62 albums in his lifetime and 39 have so far been released posthumously (see this discogs article). The albums are often demanding works ranging from experimental symphonies (in the documentary he admits that he loved Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”) to ironic punk rock that some consider comedy albums. Zappa was an unapologetic satirist who spared no one. It’s appropriate that he died when political correctness began rearing its ugly head in the early ‘90s. Who knows how he would have survived in today’s kid gloves era of trigger warnings?
If there’s a portrait that arises from Zappa’s own words is that he was a complicated, incredibly aware man of a particular era. Early in the film he dismisses the hippie label, priding himself on skipping the drug abuse cliché of the rock star. At the end of his life he witnessed the birth of the PC movement, which probably began with Tipper Gore’s crusade to get Parental Advisory stickers on certain records. The film has some choice moments of Zappa at a Senate hearing fighting against the labels that he considered theocratic moralizing by the government.
But as a man of a certain era, the film feels like an artifact of a different time, or maybe he’s a hero that this era needs (and, no, Donald Trump is not that answer). Whatever the case, Eat That Question is a reminder of the potential of free thought in a society that filled with the noise of righteousness, no matter if it comes from ISIS, U.S. political leaders or gay rights activists clamoring for hetero-normative rights that ironically imprison them to the system Zappa made a career of railing against. And then there is his music. As a side bar to his review, come back Saturday, where we will survey local South Florida musicians who consider Zappa an indispensable part of their music careers.
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words runs 93 minutes and is rated R. It opens exclusively in South Florida at the Tower Theater Miami this Friday, July 29. For dates in other U.S. cities, visit this link. Distributor Sony Pictures Classics provided all images and a screener link for the purpose of this review