Frank Zappa doc forces you to Eat That Question

B- Documentary

Directed by Thorsten Schütte

Early in this documentary on the legendary musician and provocateur, Frank Zappa insists that you can’t possibly know someone from an interview. It’s artificial; it’s unpleasant; it’s only two steps away from the Inquisition.

And that captures the film’s biggest problem. We hear a lot of Zappa’s words, but they’re public words. We don’t hear his private words, as we did in the Marlon Brando doc, Listen to Me Marlon. Nor do we hear from the people who knew and loved him. Fortunately, Zappa always made an interesting interview subject–blunt, opinionated, impossible to pin down, and often obscene. But still, this film never lets us see what made him tick.

Frank Zappa hit the cultural radar as the 1960s became what we think of as The Sixties (although there’s one TV clip with Steve Allen that appears to be from the 50s). With his long hair, his big mustache, and his vocabulary spiked with words that polite people didn’t say in those days, he seems to be the ultimate hippy–although he despised that word and preferred to be called a freak. He talked about artistic integrity and criticized American materialism. But he didn’t do or approve of drugs (other than tobacco–you rarely see him without a cigarette), and his tunes were often too complex and sophisticated to dance to. He also composed classical music.

Director Thorsten Schütte didn’t shoot new footage for Eat that Question, and if he interviewed anyone for this movie, it didn’t make the final cut. The film lacks a narration. Almost the entire runtime is made up of archival footage of Zappa performing or giving interviews. The rest is Zappa rehearsing, Zappa making TV appearances, and Zappa testifying before Congress attacking censorship. The entire film is pillarboxed in the pre-HDTV 4×3 aspect ratio in which all of these performances and interviews were shot.

Fortunately, the film has a good deal of concert footage–something that many recent music documentaries lack. Aside from the enjoyment of the music, these scenes show us how closely he controlled his band, The Mothers of Invention. Long before Bruce Springsteen became famous, Zappa was very much The Boss.

Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993, less than three weeks before his 53rd birthday. At that point in his life, he was concentrating on classical music– selling out concert halls in Europe while Americans thought of him as a has-been ’60s rocker.

Frank Zappa deserves an excellent documentary. Here, he gets a merely good one.