Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016) / Documentary
MPAA Rated: R for language, some sexual references and brief nudity
Running Time: 93 min.
Cast (archival footage): Frank Zappa
Small role (archival): Katey Couric, Tom Brokaw, Connie Chung, Tipper Gore, Steve Allen, Mike Douglas, George Duke, Arlene Francis, Soupy Sales, Keith Moon, Ringo Starr
Director: Thorsten Schutte
Review published July 10, 2016
Thorsten Schutte (Namibia Generation X, I Was the King of Porn) directs this documentary about legendary music iconoclast Frank Zappa, as the title says, "in his own words", excerpting snippets, done mostly chronologically, from several insightful interviews he had done in his relatively short lifetimes as well as rare concert footage of his stage performances, including with his band, The Mothers of Invention. It likely won't go down as the definitive take on Zappa's life, but it does definitely make for an interesting, thoughtful, funny, irreverent, and erudite documentary for those viewers with a special interest in Zappa's views on music and politics, as well as for an easy introduction to the nonconformist man behind the unconventional music.
Eat That Question offers plenty of archival footage of various interview sessions Zappa did for television, combining this with clips from some of his own personal movies, as well as a number of his concerts in front of crowds both welcoming and skeptical. Some of the doc's surprising delights include a clean-cut younger Frank Zappa improvising music to an audience who clearly don't get it on "The Steve Allen Show" in 1963, where the witty host praises Zappa for his far-sighted courage to push the boundaries of his artistic expression, while also quipping to not ever perform his music around him again. We also get some insightful footage of Zappa's testimony to congress in the 1980s, taking on Tipper Gore's proposal to put warning labels on music of objectionable content to protect younger ears, while he fights back on trying to clamp down on artistic freedoms, feeling that there is no such thing as a bad word or thought one can have, so why keep people from them?
He would even appear on the contentious CNN political talk show, "Crossfire", in 1986, proclaiming his anti-union conservative viewpoints, despite his dislike of the Reagan/Bush administration, or, really, most government officials. Perhaps most surprising to some who don't know Zappa except in the abstract, or who didn't follow his output beyond the 1970s, is how well regarded he was as an artist in unlikely pockets of the world, including being considered a veritable folk-hero in the recently liberated country of Czech Republic, where is music and his anti-Communist sermonizing fell on to accepting ears. This contrasts with great irony to Zappa's treatment by those in countries that tout their political and artistic freedom, such as the United States and Great Britain, as the musician would perpetually have to haggle to be able to make the music he wanted to make, and perform in venues that looked down upon his music as too radical for their tastes (his proposed concert playing the musical score to his avant-garde film, "200 Motels", at the Royal Albert Hall was cancelled due to the so-called obscene nature of the performance), even when he consented to compromise on the content of his lyrics.
Zappa's greatest fans will no doubt champion him as a genius ahead of his time, while those who are experiencing his music for the first time will probably think his music is often bad to the point of being unlistenable. The film does well in showing that Zappa is fully aware on how to make good, melodic music, but, at various stages in his career, he would deliberately subvert the convention on what constitutes "good" music by creating something complex, irregular, and discordant, challenging his listeners to go against the tide of convention to create your own path. Not everyone will choose to follow, but those that do are rewarded with the answer that one can and should question societal pressures, and to resist being easily labeled for marketable appeal (journalists tried to label Zappa as part of the Hippie movement, but more because of his long hair than his sometimes conservative views on politics, and he claimed to rarely use even mild drugs like pot), the way that the music industry and the media were increasingly perplexed by the charismatic and quotable but not-always-easygoing Frank Zappa in his short 52 years on Earth.
Eat That Question is more a patchwork-quilt than a finely woven tapestry, more like an interesting collection of rarities that, when put together, offer an insightful and interesting peek into the mind of an insightful and interesting man. If you've always found the eternally eccentric Zappa's musical output to be too hard on the ears in the past, watch this first, then take a listen again, with the new knowledge that great art should push you out of your comfort zone so you can gain a different perspective you'd never otherwise have in the shielded bubble of conventional society.
©2016 Vince Leo