Film Review: Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words

August March
5 min read
You Could Reach Nirvana Tonight!
The Grand Wazoo himself (Courtesy
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Thorsten Schütte’s film about American composer and musician Frank Zappa revisits the work, career and public political leanings of a man who died more than 20 years ago. Some would argue that Zappa’s most memorable work came two decades before his demise, when rock and roll outrage was still a thingwhen long-haired dudes with no shirt on playing devastatingly def guitar licks laced with profane and salaciously scatological asides were things to be more than admired and most likely absorbed by slews of teenage groupies and middle-aged men seeking redemption from their otherwise square lives.

Then again we are talking about a master here and
hagiography asideit’s refreshing to be reminded of Zappa’s intense musical genius, his eloquent, if sometimes politically incorrect, diatribes about life and liberty and his propensity for demonstrating time and time again that the root of foolishness is ignorance and complacency.

Zappa’s music can be difficult. Hell, some of it is still
practically unplayable. But Americans should be reminded of the man’s prowess with both axes and orchestras. And his politics, sometimes mistaken for misogynist bravado or unrefined individualism, needs to be seen for what they really are: The honest contributions of a free-thinking iconoclast to the American cultural dialogue.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words focuses on that nexus. Little time is spent having other musicians or writers or artists try to explain the weirdness away or accommodate the difficulty that comes with understanding the Grand Wazoo.

Instead, Schütte has done an awesome job of compiling interviews, concert footage and moments from Zappa’s personal life that paint a picture of complexity, courage and crazy compositions teetering on the edge
forever reaching for a cosmic counterpoint to all that is inherently phony, simple and silly in our nation and world. And while totally ignoring current controversies surrounding the artist’s work, the film functions wondrously as an introduction for the unindoctrinated as well as a refresher course for long time fans.

Zappa had a diffuse influence on rock music and American culture. It’s impossible to imagine the ascendence of Ween in the mid-’90s without Zappa out there in the dark universe urging the Boognish on toward Earth; the transgressive nuance of the Residents seems related to Zappa; even the history of hip-hop seems to be precariously balanced on his general tendency toward non-compliance, intensely different musicality and outward embrace of the profane parts of human life.

Zappa’s journey from obscurity to stardom and his consequent embrace of contrarianism is documented throughout the production. A young Frank appears early in his career in a snippet taken from “The Steve Allen Show.” He is reserved, wearing a suit and tie with close cropped hair. When he describes his oeuvre to the legendary “Tonight Show” host, he is mocked with gentle gravitas. Ironically Allen, initially intent on dismissing Zappa’s interest in new music, seems to actually be enjoying himself at the end of the bit. The scene ends with the the two making musical sounds using a bicycle while laughing it up in an almost celebratory fashion.

Cut to the early 1970s, where a hirsute Zappa informs an interviewer that he “was always a freak but never a hippie” and viewers begin to get an idea of where the composer’s vision emanates from, and the place where the two subcultures parted ways. Freaks may have looked like hippies on the surface, but their tapestries were painted in much more cynical tones, and Zappa acknowledges this sea change when he tells another talking head, a decade later, “We are culturally nothing, we mean nothing … we have Levi’s, hamburgers Coca Cola … we also have neutron bombs and poison gas; maybe that makes up for [the other stuff].”

Politics aside, the film is also a potent reminder of Zappa’s unwavering musical ingenuity and accomplishment. He kills as a conductor and band leader, bringing out fantastic performances from top-flight players who are ready to do anything for him. He also rips out the finest guitar solos ever produced on planet Earth in the concert sequences featured in this documentary; the only shame here is that each musical encounter in the film is incomplete. It would have served his memory better had one full performance been included.

Zappa’s late career work
fighting the powers that be in Washington over the contents of rock music lyrics, his appearances on late night talk shows as a facund libertarian and his devotion to art and orchestral musictake up the last third of the film. As the tragedy of his cancer diagnosis becomes clear, Zappa grapples with the unknown while dispersing a final, soakingly potent thunderstorm, conjuring a grand summation that includes the following statement: “There’s the possibility that the whole body of my work is one composition … If it was done and I stuck it all together, it’s one composition.” The longing and wonder in Zappa’s eyes at that moment is stunning because it reveals a soul that realizes the work will never be finished, that it will have to be left behind for others to gather up afterwards.
Eat That Question

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