Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words takes its title from a song found on the composer’s 1972 fusion album The Grand Wazoo, and there may be no better preparation for the Frank Zappa revealed in director Thorston Schutte’s extraordinary documentary than this command to consume, and then presumably digest and defecate out, the sort of journalistic queries Zappa routinely endured, with patience, smarts and inescapable sarcasm, throughout his career. “Being interviewed is one of the most abnormal things that you can do to somebody,” Zappa explains during a TV interview to a reporter whose expression, an uneasy mixture of intimidation and confusion, remains constant throughout their encounter.
The composer’s testy relationship with the media is one of the threads that unites Schutte’s somewhat unusual approach—there are none of the usual associates, scholars and friends on hand to tell you secondhand (at best) what a genius Zappa was, nor the typical glut of chyrons and identifiers meant to orient you as to where and when you are or to who it is other than Zappa who occasionally speaks, or even the names of the songs you’re occasionally hearing. Instead, the movie’s deft editing style conjures Zappa’s history through an assemblage of observational details—quality of film stock, fashion, the greying of hair— creating a focus which makes the most room possible for Zappa to express his own musical and political philosophy, minus the usual overt and covert cultural filtering. “I feel very strongly about my point of view,” Zappa explains at one point. “I think there are other people who might agree with it if they heard it, and I’ll do whatever I can to say my point of view wherever it can be said.” In creating a film that posthumously allows Zappa to do precisely that (the musician died in 1993 from the effects of prostate cancer), Schutte has crafted a tribute that might have gained approval even from the notoriously exacting musician himself.
(Presumably the surviving members of Zappa’s family are similarly satisfied with the results—the film was produced in conjunction with the Zappa Family Trust—even if those family members are currently at odds with each other regarding the musical and financial legacy of their father.)
Eat That Question is a gift to Zappa’s diehard fans (I count myself among their number), who will be well familiar with some of the places that Schutte’s film takes them. But even if the film proves to be more revelatory to those whose familiarity and understanding of Zappa’s music and his modus operandi registers below the line of fanaticism, it remains fascinating not only as a document of FZ’s testy relationship with the press, but also of the press’s evolving relationship with their insistently irreverent subject.
We see the fledgling avant-garde composer’s early appearance, at age 22, on The Steve Allen Show, performing “Concerto for Two Bicycles”—using two bicycles, naturally—under the comically condescending guidance of the host. In a lesser film, this clip would be framed by talking heads prompting us with perfect 20/20 hindsight to observe what an asshole Steve Allen was for not noticing or encouraging his guest’s creative impulses. But Schutte lets the archival footage speak for itself; we see not only Allen’s good-natured disregard, but also the young Zappa’s sincerity as it mixes up with his desire to play along with, and gently poke at his host’s befuddlement. (Anyone who has ever taken pride in appreciating something which causes their parents some measure of confusion or distress will recognize this impulse.)
It didn’t take long, however before that sort of give-and-take playfulness disappeared almost entirely. Interviews from around the Mothers of Invention period reveal that the musician had developed a healthy disregard of his own as his music became more and more challenging, and that disregard was now more often returned by the guardians of TV culture. At one point, after having resurrected accusations of Zappa having betraying the hippie movement—an accusation that pointedly does not inspire in Zappa the sort of defensive outrage that was intended-- the unidentified interviewer-- Mr. Obvious-- suggests, with no small portion of pity in his delivery, that “there is a deep cynicism in you.” Without hesitation, Zappa responds: “Yeah, and I wish more people would catch some of it!”
The beauty of Schutte’s movie is that it reveals a confidence borne from an absolute conviction in the ability of its hyper-articulate, yet never hyperbolic subject to hold the room, even at his most sarcastic, employing a dead-eyed stare that could and did wilt unprepared journalists unfortunate enough to step into its focus. Zappa often responded to serious inquiry, however, with cool thoughtfulness—on the subject of whether or not his songs were largely improvised, he replied, “The structure of the songs allows for the possibility of improvisation, but they are pretty thoroughly rehearsed… I don’t like to go out on stage and slop around”.
But his outrage was perhaps more thoroughly documented. Zappa relates that attempts at censorship in his career went as far back as “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black,” a song on the We’re Only in It For the Money album which was surreptitiously edited by record executives who misinterpreted a lyric about a waitress at a restaurant (“I still remember Mama/With her apron and her pad/Feeding all the boys at Ed’s Café”) as a reference to a sanitary napkin. And it’s a thrill of a very precise sort to revisit footage of Zappa taking a cool-headed stand in the early ‘80s, in Congress and on CNN’s Crossfire program, against the almost comic paranoia of Parent Music Resource Center and their crusade against rock music filth. (His parrying with Florida Senator Paula Hawkins on the subject will put a smile on the face of every young Zappa aficionado who grew up to warp the minds of their very own children.)
It wouldn’t be a surprise if many viewers of Eat That Question took away a dominant picture of Zappa as an angry maverick tilting at the multitudinous windmills of plasticized and processed American culture, because in many ways that’s what he was. But the movie also makes room for the sort of peculiar joy that characterized his experience too. He actively resisted being conscripted as a performing front man. (“We’ve been offered three or four times to play for the big communist party picnic in France… Fuck the communists. I don’t like those people. I do my music for people who like music.”)
Yet he embraced, with some measure of shock and surprise, the expression of appreciation directed toward him by President Vaclav Havel and the dissident peoples of Czechoslovakia, and after visiting the country in 1990 he accepted Havel’s appointment as Special Ambassador to the West for Trade, Culture and Tourism. For Zappa, who had spent 30 years battling record companies and social institutions and governmental interference over the expression of his own musical creativity and political conviction in the land of the free and the home of the brave, it was a bittersweet moment of validation. Schutte’s film, in laying the foundation for the case for Frank Zappa as something considerably more than a freak, registers the importance of the moment and how it resonates with our own current, somewhat freakish global political climate.
And Zappa himself took an especially mordant glee in relating how “Bobby Brown,” the viciously satirical first-person portrayal of a sociopathic, sexually opportunistic disco-era predator from Zappa’s unusually popular 1979 Sheik Yerbouti album, was embraced by Europeans and made into a #1 hit in several countries, even though he suspected that most who loved it had no idea what the song was actually about. The image of a Norwegian disco full of young people slow-dancing to a ballad sung by a self-described “American dream” who brags about being able to “take about an hour on the tower of power, as long as I gets a little golden shower” is one of the movie’s funniest moments. What’s more, the movie inadvertently highlights the surgery done by Zappa on the song’s entitled, brutally casual protagonist (“Here I am at a famous school/I'm dressin' sharp and I'm actin' cool/I got a cheerleader here wants to help with my paper/Let her do all the work and maybe later I'll rape her”), which has a psychological resonance that is welcome, and unfortunately just as necessary in the aftermath of Brock Turner, as it was when it debuted during the age of polyester slacks and dangling coke spoons.