'Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words'
Musician profile documentaries are tricky. They’re essentially fan-service provided to people who already know the story. A musician profile doc about someone who’s already dead? Even tougher to pull off with any style. That’s why it’s such a pleasant surprise that ‘Eat That Question’, the feature length profile of Frank Zappa, is actually worth seeking out.
Compiling interviews with the avant-garde rocker from throughout his career along with some of the evolving music that he composed at the time, the doc serves up a uniquely oddball portrait of an artist who deserves no less. Even those whose ears can’t get in tune with Zappa’s experimental extremes should appreciate listening to the fascinating artist speak his mind, often in spite of the questions asked.
Director Thorsten Schütte plays out the Frank Zappa story mostly chronologically. Some truly bizarre early footage of him playing with bicycles on Steve Allen’s ‘Tonight Show’ offers a curious origin story of sorts (both for Zappa and, inadvertently, David Letterman-style talk shows). From there, the film dives pretty much straight into The Mothers of Invention and his most popular era. Most of the interviews are from the appropriate time, with some occasional later interviews discussing the same era in retrospect stuck in. From the very beginning, Zappa complains that he’s a musician known more for his celebrity than his music. He had the right face, name and look to stick out at a very specific psychedelic time and was such an enjoyably sardonic interview subject that he often found himself making appearances on talk shows with people who liked him but barely ever heard his music. It’s a complaint he makes often and, in an odd way, one the movie doesn’t do much to correct.
To be clear, Schütte clearly adores his subject and presents him with passion, but this is a talking-head movie above all else, with at most cameo appearances from Zappa’s music to link together all the footage. Admittedly, Zappa’s a pretty amusing guy to listen to, so it’s not hard to see how that happened. It’s just a strange issue worth acknowledging. Still, what quickly emerges is an artist with a two-track career. From his psychedelic rock shows in the ’60s, to his jazz odysseys of the ’70s, pop parodies of the ’80s, and the symphonic orchestrations of the ’90s, Zappa always provided self-consciously amusing music to fund his wilder ambitions that few noticed. It frustrated him, but he played the role and it worked out just fine.
It’s the combination of career contradictions and calculations like this that make Zappa such an intriguing documentary subject. Throughout the interviews presented here, he comes off as a remarkably self-aware artist in an industry full of folks not exactly renowned for brains or articulation. He rallied against the idiocy of pop and invited fans to indulge in his grand musical experiments as not merely an act of transgression, but a sign that they were more enlightened that the idiots around them. Smug? Certainly, but not entirely inaccurate. The man was quite capable of creating and curating his own cult. That was as much a gift as any of his musical skills, and the movie provides an entertaining trip through the ego and entertainment he provided.
‘Eat That Question’ likely doesn’t make much of a case for Frank Zappa’s musical gifts that will change the minds of the unconverted. There simply isn’t enough actual music shown off in the movie for that, and most of it is reduced down to clips and snippets. However, the integrity, intelligence and humor of the man are unquestionable. He emerges as a fascinating figure, unwilling to be politicized or commoditized unless it was entirely on his own terms. He could be prickly and sarcastic in interviews, but was always insightful. In the brief times we see him perform, there’s a playfulness and explosion of life within Zappa that makes it clear he was transported by the art.
As an introduction to Frank Zappa, it’s unlikely the documentary will send many people racing over to the Apple Store to stock up on music stuck in their heads. However, most will likely emerge fascinated by the man and wondering how in the intervening years no similar figure has arrived in the music world to take his place. The man was unique and that’s enough to make this documentary feel that way too, even if it’s ultimately little more than yet another interview clip compilation with a rock star.