Even those who aren’t fans of Frank Zappa—or don’t know anything about him and his music at all—will probably find Thorsten Schutte’s documentary enlightening. The subtitle is an accurate one: this is a film that consists almost entirely of excerpts from interviews the singer-songwriter gave during his long career, accompanied by other archival footage. Although the result isn’t a full biography—we learn little to nothing of Zappa’s life before his appeared, a clean-cut young man in a cleanly-pressed suit, on the Steve Allen show in the early 1960s to conduct a piece he’d composed for two bicycles and a chaotic instrumental ensemble.
That bit of archival footage is quickly succeeded by Zappa’s rather different appearance as the front man of the Mothers of Invention, and takes the narrative into his running battle with the music industry and his affinity to writing pungently satirical lyrics to music that exhibited remarkably eclecticism. He attacked every form of censorship, including Tipper Gore’s drive to put warning advisories on LPs. He moved into movies with “200 Motels” in 1971, pioneering the use of video-to-film technique for what would become a cult picture. He made extensive use of innovative recording processes, amiably dismissing the idea that the spontaneity of live players was the most important element in the final product. And all the while he was composing what he considered his serious music, which late in his life he would hire orchestras to perform under his watchful eye. That occurred while he was already showing the effect of the prostate cancer that would lead to his death at 52 in 1993.
The portrait that emerges from “Eat That Question” is of a man who defied easy pigeon-holing. While often criticized as a bad influence on his young fans, he emphasized his opposition to drug use among his players and the need for them to show up ready to do their jobs. While dismissed as a leftie, he criticized liberals as well as conservatives, and did not fit into any simple political slot. And he was willing to put himself publically on the line to espouse his views: in one memorable piece of footage, he holds his own quite effectively on a television panel that centers on whether the government has the responsibility of imposing a particular standard of morality on its citizens.
There’s a good deal of genuinely surprising material here, such as the footage of Zappa’s trip to Czechoslovakia, where he had a rabid following, after the fall of communism in eastern Europe to sign a contract for the distribution of his records there. (A glimpse of his meeting with Vaclav Havel is a precious memento of a time of remarkable hope that now seems in serious trouble.)
But being based almost exclusively on the record of Zappa’s own words, the film also leaves out, or skirts, some aspects of his life as well—and not just his upbringing. Though there’s mention of his privately-owned record label, for example, discussion of its operation is limited, and some important episodes are ignored completely.
Though “Eat That Question” is admittedly selective, however, the parts of Zappa’s life that it includes provide fascinating insight into a complex man and a complicated artist.