Frank Zappa hated being interviewed. Early in Eat That Question
, he calls it the most unnatural thing ever. But the premise of director Thorsten Schotte’s new documentary is that Zappa is best understood when he has no filter, which is just the first of the film’s many contradictions.
Eat That Question
is comprised entirely of archival footage, completely lacking any contemporary interviews or commentary to put Zappa in context for the twenty first century. Since Zappa succumbed to prostate cancer in 1993, there is a whole generation of music fans who are likely unfamiliar with his work, and Schotte makes no overt effort to reach out to them. For long stretches of the film, his music is treated as an afterthought; it’s Zappa’s ideas that are important. That’s kind of a shame, because Zappa’s ideas about personal and intellectual freedom flowed from his musical mind. The Zappa Schotte exposes makes no bones about his desire to be taken seriously as a musician and composer. And yet, when we first see him as a eager eyed young man appearing on the Steve Allen Show, he’s playing a bicycle and instructing the accompanying musicians to “try to refrain from musical tones”.
Schotte’s quest for the unfiltered Zappa is ultimately doomed for a number of reasons. First, although Zappa is praised for his honesty and no-bullshit attitude, it’s clear from watching him make interviewers squirm for 90 minutes that he thought carefully about everything he said. His ever utterance, from declaring he was “always a freak, never a hippie” to explaining how a Synclavier sampling synthesizer worked to the vapid host of the CBS morning show was an attempt to provoke a reaction in the listener. No one ever got past his filter. Then there’s the filter Schotte’s skillful editing imposes on the man’s memory. The director takes pains to include outtakes and unscripted moments from the no doubt enormous archive Zappa’s widow and children, who are executive producers, provided. But this is still a hagiography, the director is a fan, downplaying the more troubling parts of Zappa’s life, such as his attitudes towards women and homosexuals.
Consider, though, that Zappa was born in 1940, and for a man of his time, his thinking was beyond radical. Zappa described himself as a conservative, but he railed against the mixing of politics and religion. In Germany in the late 1960s, he made fools of Communists protesting a Mothers Of Invention concert, and fifteen years later, he did the same to conservative legislators who tried to make him and Prince the scapegoats for a wave of music censorship. He called the proposal by Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Council to put warning labels on records they deemed obscene “an ill-conceived piece of nonsense”. Like the Mozart of Amadeus
, he was obsessed with outré’, scatalogical humor, to the extent that even his instrumental albums were preemptively slapped with “Explicit Lyrics” stickers. His overriding concern was freedom of the mind, and he took no prisoners when he felt that freedom was threatened.
When Schotte does put the music in the foreground, he reaches deep into the catalog. I have a passing knowledge of Zappa’s music from hanging out with freaks for years, but I only recognized some passages from 200 Motels
and the song “Dynamo Hum”, which is featured in all its obscene glory in a killer performance shot by a gaggle of Bolex-weilding cinematographers swarming the stage. Like its subject, Eat That Question is a stubborn contrarian film, uncompromising to a fault. It’s sure to speak to both hardcore Zappa fans and the intellectually adventurous music nerds of today, but it’s likely to leave any unsuspecting normals cold and bewildered. And that’s exactly how Zappa would have liked it.