In 1963, a young Frank Zappa appeared on “The Steve Allen Show,” where he used drumsticks and a bicycle to create a vibrant cacophony of sounds that must have been equally aggravating and fascinating to the generally square viewers of the program. After listening to Zappa’s bicycle-based orchestra, Allen gave a short speech defending artists who have the courage to push the boundaries of their medium, ending it by wryly telling Zappa, “I congratulate you for your far-sightedness. As for your music, don’t ever do it around here again.”
Allen’s opinion seemed to encapsulate mainstream music fans’ initial reactions to listening to Zappa: They might not like what they hear, but it’s hard not to respect his dedication and staunch professionalism when it came to finding new avenues in musical expression, regardless of what genre the music business was exploiting at any given time. Zappa always did his own thing, which made it impossible to pigeonhole him into any musical style. For proof, pick up a random Zappa album and try to guess when it was recorded solely by listening to the music. Chances are, you’ll be off by a decade or two.
“Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” is a simple yet engaging documentary that uses only a combination of interviews and concert footage to give fans as well as newcomers an in-depth look into an artist whose work was complex, yet whose outlook and demeanor was as open, honest, and relaxed as one could get. Thorsten Schütte’s film manages to construct a fairly straightforward biography of Zappa by merely splicing together previously available footage. There isn’t any use of voice-over, contemporary talking-head interviews, or even superimposed text that specifies when and where any particular interview is taking place.
This kind of bare-bones approach to chronicling the life of a music legend might remind some of last year’s “Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck,” which used a similar technical approach in encapsulating Cobain’s brief yet troubled existence as a grunge superstar. Even though the stylistic approaches of both documentaries might be similar, the subjects, as well as the way the filmmakers approach them, are very different. While Cobain was a reclusive and cryptic individual, Zappa was an open book, willing to share his unfiltered thoughts on his art with anyone who was willing to listen, eager to have his music reach as many people as possible.
What he wasn’t willing to do was to compromise an inch when it came to his unique vision. In many of the interviews that are included in ‘Eat That Question,’ Zappa hammers home the point that art and business shouldn’t go hand in hand. “If you think ‘Will this make money?’, that’s not an artistic decision. That’s a business decision,” he confidently tells one reporter. He knew full well that his approach to music meant that he wouldn’t get as big of an audience, and that his work wouldn’t get any radio play. Yet even though he openly laments that fact during one of the interviews, it was always obvious that, as long as he could pursue his art, he didn’t care much about popularity within any certain caste in society.
By focusing entirely on Zappa’s outlook on his own work and the way it related to the outside world, Schütte manages to form a tight narrative around this fascinating man. We don’t see many aspects of Zappa’s personal life or witness any period interviews with his band members. Considering the many different lineups of The Mothers of Invention over many decades, as well as the constant evolution of Zappa’s style over time, it would have taken a Ken Burns-style 10-hour miniseries to cover Zappa’s career in detail, so a more generic approach to his overall musical philosophy serves the documentary’s focus and pacing.
It’s true that much of the footage found in the doc will be familiar to hardcore fans. “The Steve Allen Show,” the famous interview where Zappa claimed that “bad words” are meaningless, his brilliant testimony against censorship when Tipper Gore spearheaded a conservative witch hunt against “obscene” music — they’re all here. In fact, I doubt there will be much information in ‘Eat That Question’ that will come as a revelation to fans.
Yet it’s in the way that Schütte manages to build a complete picture of Zappa that fans might find it a satisfying watch, a reminder of why they love the man and his music in the first place. And for newcomers, even though we don’t get a lot of the more “popular” tracks during the concert footage (“Cosmik Debris” and “Bobby Brown Goes Down” sneak in there), it’s a perfectly fine first step into Zappa’s world of highly controlled insanity. [B+]