A fascinating documentary about the controversial composer
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words
Directed by Thorsten Schütte
Sony Pictures Classics
Black and White and Color
Zappa in his own words – a fascinating documentary about the controversial composer
“The present-day composer refuses to die” is a quote familiar to any fan of the music of Frank Zappa. What the average fan might not know is that the line is a free paraphrase from the manifesto of The International Composers, an organization spearheaded by one of Frank’s great muses – Edgard Varèse. Zappa’s admiration for the modern classical composer, his own start as a drummer, the origin of his self-educated musical notation, and a plethora of other Zappa-facts are offered from the man himself in director Thorsten Schütte’s fine documentary film, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, which opens at The Film Forum in NYC and NuArt in LA June 24, 2016. I attended an advance screening of the film along with an appreciative New York City audience including special guests Bob Zappa (Frank’s brother) and the Valley Girl herself, Frank's daughter, Moon Zappa.
Eat That Question opens with a color bar test pattern – the kind you used to see at sign-off in the golden age of television broadcasting. The next image is Frank Zappa, a head and shoulders shot, waiting for instructions from an off-screen tech who suggests a somewhat aloof ‘into dialog’ for an interview show. Zappa does a false start and gives a ’what did you want me to say’ reaction to the disembodied voice, who repeats the line. Frank knows it’s fairly lame. We know it’s fairly lame. Frank knows we know it’s fairly lame but says it anyway. With that look. Because he knows we know.
It’s all part of The Composition. Near the end of this documentary, which is made up of a grand pastiche of interview and performance footage (most of which will make hard-core Zappa fans salivate like a Pavlovian Fido), Zappa’s ultimate viewpoint is articulated. He sums things up by saying that every song - whether classical or farcical, every stage gag, every direct or indirect aspect of what he called his Conceptual Continuity was part of the Big Composition. In many ways, Eat That Question adds to that big concept by allowing Frank to add choice bits more than two decades after the composer stopped refusing to die.
Director Schütte draws from a rich variety of sources. The earliest clip is from Steve Allen’s television show, featuring a young, slightly awkward, pre-mustached Zappa orchestrating a piece for studio band, pre-recorded electronic sounds, and a bicycle (!). Also featured is one of Zappa’s last public interviews, prostate cancer rendering the then fully-bearded icon obviously weak and apparently aware that he might be in his last days. Black and white performance footage of the early Mothers of Invention are grainy but with rich contrast and interesting angles. Concert footage is offered for historical context only so there aren’t any complete performances although it’s a treat to see some of the various incarnations of Frank’s band(s). Broadcast interview portions are chosen from entertainment mainstays of the day like The Mike Douglas Show and New York’s Stanley Seigel Show. More combative are some moments from the long-running Firing Line program and other talk shows both domestic and foreign. Live remotes featured on various morning news shows take us inside the Zappa home and studio for a less-confrontational look at the composer at work, while news footage of Frank’s Capitol Hill battles concerning warning labels on albums containing potentially offensive material is all-out verbal war.
A word to the wise here – we are talking about a man who pushed the boundaries of expression and at some point many viewers are likely to be offended by something, whether the profanity (plenty of ‘F Bombs’ to go around) or the presentation of politically incorrect material that, about a quarter of a century since his death, might get the maestro into some trouble with not only women, but the LGBTQ community as well. An equal-opportunity offender, Zappa’s later work gets more political and quite specifically anti-religious, especially in regards to organized Christianity and TV preachers. It can also be suggested that Frank’s inner angry adolescent shows from time to time, especially in the explicit but arguably sophomoric sexual themes that seemed to sprout from the ‘Flo and Eddie’ period, where Frank’s genius seemed to be sometimes blunted by tendencies toward a rowdy burlesque.
A glowing period that’s also represented by some great looking (and great sounding) footage is the early 70s period band most famous for the Roxy concerts. Frank is seen with one of his most capable band units having tremendous fun and creating stunning music. Of all of the clips in the film I believe that this shows Frank Zappa looking the most at ease, the most engaged with his musicians, and the happiest.
None of the above should be news to the dedicated Frank Zappa fan. You know what to expect and you get it. Without so much as a narration (but with the occasional on-screen interviewer), Schütte allows Frank to tell his own story in his own words, not as a narrative biography but as a collection of responses to the queries of talking heads and roaming cameras. In some cases, he’s articulate and generous in his answers – in other instances (Stanley Seigel) he could be curt and distant to the host, like a hostile witness. He plays them like a guitar. We see him play his audiences. It’s all part of one composition – the Conceptual Continuity. Is he still playing us, viewing this documentary? The present-day composer refuses to die….
Eat That Question is a fascinating look at a fascinating man who made art, expression, and freedom keynotes in his life. We’re still left with something of a question, though – at least I am. What made Frank tick? The only hint we have of a Frank Zappa being touched emotionally is the amazing footage of Zappa’s “hero's welcome” to Czechoslovakia in 1990, when the composer arrives to be welcomed by a cheering crowd of fans. Why did such a viscerally effective musician end up preferring the synclavier over human musicians (see my remarks about when he seemed to be at his happiest)? Why choose to make music totally devoid of the human touch? Why choose perfection over creative interaction? A good documentary often brings you to questions that can illuminate your own life, and Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words might lead you to some of the same questions I left with – questions well worth asking.
After the screening I asked Moon Zappa, Frank’s daughter, if she could tell me one thing about her father that we didn’t see on the screen. I was looking for an anecdote about a personal frustration, maybe a glimpse at some carefully-guarded warmth, or even sentimentality that might have been masked by his public persona. After several moments of what looked like intense thought, she offered a picture of the mundane: Frank cooking a hot dog over the gas grill …just doing something normal, every-day, commonplace, “In the dangerous kitchen,” she added, referencing one of her father’s more whimsical compositions. I wondered if what we really hadn’t seen this night was a truly unguarded moment. Moon and Dweezil, unlike Frank, are – to all appearances - very open, giving, warm and, yes, emotional people. A careful reading of Frank’s brother Bob’s excellent book, Growing Up Zappa, paints a picture of a brilliant young man brought up in an unstable environment and often at odds with an authoritarian father. Could this be where the need for absolute control and the seeming reluctance to embrace most forms of what we could call ‘romantic’ emotional life comes from? This is all speculation on my part, but Eat That Question shows us a man who didn’t take well to being unprepared. His statements are often brilliantly constructed and tinged with a biting, satiric twist. Humor and cynicism – which we do see in the subject of this film – can be a toxic combination if you’ve isolated yourself emotionally.
Eat That Question. Watch that film. Listen to that music. There’s a lot to choose from – the legacy of Frank Zappa spans at least 100 official releases. Zappa laments more than once in Schütte’s documentary that most people “know who I am but,” he says, “don’t have a clue about what I do.”
In Eat That Question you’ll meet Frank Zappa, the self-defined conservative, composer, and entertainer - and you’ll get a clue about what he did, in his own words.