Iconoclastic, revered, and reviled, musical legend Frank Zappa captivated the musical world for a relatively short period of time. From bursting onto the musical landscape around 1967 until his untimely death from prostate cancer in 1993 at the age of 52, Zappa didn’t just march to the beat of a different drummer. He was the drummer, and everything in his world seemed to fall in line around his every beat. Fancying himself not only as a serious musician but as a classically minded composer, the roguish leader of The Mothers of Invention was constantly pushing the musical form to its intellectual, moral, satirical, and sonic limits. The man, just like his music, wasn’t for the square or faint of heart.
Zappa was such an original – and so closely guarded about his personal life – that making a film about his life and accomplishments proves difficult. German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte has an interesting approach to the musical icon with his primary sourced documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, but it never amounts to anything truly eye opening or special. Packed with fitfully engaging anecdotes and an examination of Zappa’s wide range of talents, Eat That Question comes aimed squarely at the already converted who won’t care that they aren’t learning anything remotely new about their beloved saviour of music.
Made in collaboration with the Zappa Family Trust, Eat That Question has been assembled only from archival, often rare one-on-one interviews with occasional news reports inserted for cultural, political, or narrative context. That enough footage exists to make such a project is a bit of a marvel since Zappa was always considered by many as a tough interview to get despite his numerous television appearances. Zappa didn’t suffer fools kindly in person. The articulate and outspoken composer was always quick to counter any arguments levied against his boundary pushing sounds and attitudes, and could occasionally get quite surly. Sometimes Zappa was in the right, especially when he was constantly compared to drug addled hippies when he was a relative straight-edged guy, or whenever he was called an anarchist simply for being anti-fascist.
Schütte lets Zappa’s past interviews create a narrative for the film, which sounds good in theory, but for anyone wanting to know what made the musician tick or how his life and views influenced his sound is out of luck. Just like his music, Zappa’s answers in these interviews with a diverse array of interrogator might sound revolutionary on a surface level, but they’re rigorously composed and thought out in advance, their quickness only coming because Zappa was also a great wit. There isn’t a single moment of Eat That Question that Zappa wouldn’t want anyone to hear. Not a word is spoken of his private life outside of obvious statements. Not much is made of his often sexist, right leaning, sometimes blatantly homophobic track record. Zappa was unrepentant about his shortcomings until the end, but he never openly confronted them, which in some ways is fine. He did what he had to. That makes for a deathly boring film for anyone not interested solely in anecdotes that leave giant gaps in the narrative of the person the documentary centres around. It’s one thing not to turn a critical eye on a subject since plenty of hack documentaries do that all the time. It’s another thing entirely to foist what’s essentially a clip show on somewhat unsuspecting viewers.
I get the sense that Zappa himself would be mostly nonplussed by the results here, but the one thing that Schütte does quite well is documenting how the man behind something as famously unlistenable as the “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” album refused to be classified. Was his music pop? Rock? Metal? Jazz? Funk? Classical? R&B? Was he a comedian? An accomplished composer? A troll? A savvy businessman? Through Zappa’s own words, Schütte makes credible cases for all of the above. It’s a shame he does so without ever trying to say why any of this matters beyond Zappa’s obvious cultural and financial success. Eat That Question is the dictionary definition of a sycophantic documentary.