I’ve been on a music documentary binge lately. After Eight Days a Week, the Ron Howard film about The Beatles, which I loved, I saw another doc about a rock musician who was in some ways the polar opposite of the Fab Four. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words, a film by Thorsten Schutte, presents selections from interviews, concerts, and other footage, all featuring the American composer, guitarist, satirist, and leader of the rock band The Mothers of Invention. Frank Zappa was an unusual and often misunderstood figure in music, and Schutte means it when he says, “in his own words.” There’s no narration of any kind, or retrospective interviews of people who knew him. We are allowed to experience the many different aspects and phases of Zappa’s public life unfiltered, and this turns out to be a very satisfying film strategy.
The clips are presented, for the most part, in a chronological format. Zappa was born in 1940 in Baltimore. His family moved to southern California when he was 12. In one of the interviews he recalls how as a teenager he heard an album of the music by avant-garde composer Edgard Varese. This, and subsequent exposure to the music of Igor Stravinsky and Anton Webern, inspired him to compose music himself. An amusing clip from The Steve Allen show in 1963 shows a young Zappa enlisting Allen and his show’s band to assist him in using a bicycle as a musical instrument.
The records he made with his band, The Mothers, in the mid-to-late 1960s, revealed a potent mixture of R&B, jazz, doo-wop, and experimental modernist orchestral styles and rhythms. What fame he achieved at that time was more due to the satiric elements of his songs—skewering conformism, politics, sexual hypocrisy, and more. The persona he projected, of an intense, confrontational, freaky-looking long-haired dude, along with the frankness of his lyrics, gained him some notoriety in the media. Later in the film he remarks that he’s managed to be famous without most people having a chance to hear his music, or even know what he does. He wasn’t played on the radio, and he had a tough time with attempted censorship of his albums. In a Paris interview in the 70s, he makes a touching and perhaps unintentional admission. The interviewer mentions various labels that people have put on him—rock star, freak, guitarist, and so on—and asks if there are any labels he missed. “There might be a couple people who think of me as a composer,” answers Zappa. “An isolated minority, perhaps.”
For his heart always lay in being a composer, and the film gradually shows us that dedication and that passion throughout his career, from conducting his band during the creation of his mixed media blockbuster “200 Motels,” to his self-financed London Symphony Orchestra performances of his music in the 1980s.
A lot of the interviewers clearly don’t know what to make of Frank Zappa, and his deadpan responses to their sometimes idiotic questions are priceless. Later in the film, we are treated to clips from his Senate hearings testimony in 1985 against the proposal to put warning labels on albums with explicit lyrics. Most delightful is the rapturous reception he received from his Czech fans on a visit to Prague in 1990. It turns out that his music had been a major inspiration for the dissidents who helped topple the Communist regime.
Zappa died of cancer in 1993. This film is an excellent glimpse into the remarkable career of one of America’s best composers. Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words played here briefly a few months ago, and it’s now available in streaming format and on DVD.