‘Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words’: Film Review

Courtesy of Sundance Institute
A skilfully assembled salute.

Director Thorsten Schuette's doc splices together archival footage of the ever-articulate rock star Frank Zappa to recount the story of his life.

A compelling gateway documentary that should absorb both fans and novices alike, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words is comprised of material shot over decades, creating a rounded portrait of the title musician. Made with the blessing of Zappa’s family, German director Thorsten Schuette judiciously plaits together rare interview clips, concert footage and news reports from all over the world to build a portrait of Zappa (1940-1993) that reflects his wit, typically ornery intelligence and inability to suffer fools politely, let alone gladly.

After premiering at Sundance, Eat That Question has already traveled to Berlin and is likely to keep racking up air miles with festival play. It should enjoy a healthy post-theatrical life online before rival director Alex Winter gets his own, recently announced Zappa family-backed doc, Who the F*@% Is Frank Zappa?, up and running with Kickstarter cash.

Although there is a passionate fan base out there keeping the flame alive for Zappa even now, 23 years after his death, there’s no getting around the fact that interest in his back catalog has waned somewhat over the years. Perhaps that’s because those approaching Zappa for the first time may feel put off by the sheer volume of his oeuvre (just over a hundred albums bear his name) and its daunting eclecticism, containing as it does elements of rock, jazz, funk, pop, R&B, metal and modern classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Edgard Varese, whom Zappa discusses in detail here.

Arguably, one of the moments that most evokes Zappa’s musical roots and classical sensibility is a black-and-white clip of him appearing on Steve Allen’s talk show in 1963 showing off a semi-improvised concerto for the studio orchestra in which the star instrument is a bicycle that Zappa bangs, bows and bashes, much to Allen’s amusement. Zappa, on the other hand, looks entirely serious about his composition, and the clip resonates movingly with the end of the film where footage observes him working with the London Symphony Orchestra and other classical musicians to perform such late compositions as G-Spot Tornado” and “Bogus Pomp.”

In between these two bookends, Schuette’s film reads, as it were, from the major volumes of the Zappa canon, checking in with him as he becomes a reluctant mouthpiece for the counterculture in the late 1960s-early 1970s when he and his band The Mothers of Invention made touring into an art form unto itself, and as he’s interviewed over the years, at one point by a chap who looks like a cop and various interviewers in Europe and the U.S. Clips of the group in performance hint at the formidable discipline Zappa insisted on as a bandleader. The Mothers may have looked like typically hirsute, shaggy-headed, frayed denim-clad hippies, but the sound was spandex-tight, and the notoriously teetotal Zappa fired anyone who used drugs while performing with or working for him.

Indeed, Schuette’s editing of the interview clips illustrates Zappa’s purist streak, a certain uptight, judgmental prissiness that manifests in an extreme intolerance of weakness or stupidity. A subtle, unpleasant machismo comes through in some spots which marks Zappa out as very much a man of his times, especially when enthusiastically discussing sex with groupies or ridiculing a gay character in a song like “Bobby Brown Goes Down.” That particular tune, incidentally, became a slow-dance favorite in countries like Norway in the early '80s, a time when seemingly no one minded lyrics like: “I’ve got a cheerleader here who wants to help with my paper/Let her do all the work and maybe later I’ll rape her.”

Zappa was nothing if not an unrepentant satirist, determined to shock and stringent in his refusal to self-censor. In fact, some may feel his finest hour and most powerful performance came late in his career when he testified before the U.S. Senate in 1985 against the Parents Music Resource Center’s proposals to put warning labels on records about explicit content. He describes the proposals as an “ill-conceived piece of nonsense, which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal's design.”

Fans of his music may mourn that Zappa died so young, best known for “Valley Girl,” the novelty song he wrote and performed with his daughter Moon, instead of his more stringent compositions. But as the PMRC footage and shots of him working for the newly liberated people of the Czech Republic suggest, the greater loss might be that Zappa never got the chance to transition into politics.  

Production companies: A Les Films du Poisson, UFA Fiction presentation in co-production with Arte France, SWR in association with the Zappa Family Trust
Director: Thorsten Schuette
Producer: Estelle Fialon
Co-producer: Jochen Laube
Executive producer: Thorsten Schuette
Editor: Willibald Wonneberger
Sales: Submarine

Not rated, 90 minutes