Frank Zappa was a rock and classical musician who got famous in the 1960s as leader of the band The Mothers of Invention. He went on from there to do more rock albums and a number of classical compositions. He was an avant-gardist at heart, but major conductors took on his work. Yet the world mostly thought of him as an anarchist, a freak, a guy who used bad language – and some people claimed that he even smelled bad. I have no idea about that, but Zappa did astonishing things. He was only 53 when he died in 1993, and in his prime as an artist.
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words is the work of a German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte, which makes sense, because Zappa was taken much more seriously – as an artist rather than a mere eccentric – in Europe than he was in this country.
Superficially, Schütte’s film keeps Zappa in his time. The film is built out of interviews with many now-forgotten talk show hosts and reporters, alternating with film shot of Zappa in concert. All of the footage is from Zappa’s lifetime. The television clips are usually in black and white; you can see how rock performances in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s were lighted.
This picture of Frank Zappa shows how he looked, talked and sounded then, how people thought of him then. In one early clip, Zappa performs on The Steve Allen Show. He’s dressed like a businessman in a suit; his hair is short and tamed, especially compared to his unruly ponytail and moustache a few years later. Allen, who was talented and funny and a musician himself, was something like corporate TV’s unofficial avant-gardist. He shows how hip he is by praising Zappa for creativity and uniqueness, and then he hits him with a jokey, caustic – “don’t ever play that here again.”
That’s how the mainstream world typically dealt with Zappa and others like him. Steve Allen fakes openness to unusual artistry, and then he shows that the mainstream world also rules on taste, and Zappa doesn’t measure up.
Eat That Question has more integrity than that. It casts few judgments. It lets Frank Zappa show himself and have his own say. The film includes no comments on Zappa in retrospect. No historians evaluate the meaning of Frank Zappa’s work. No commentator places Zappa in a larger context. No one in the present discusses the significance of the 1960s. Those important things are for a different movie.
This film, as the title says, is in Zappa’s own words.
It feels like a time capsule. It’s an encounter with another time and place that’s fascinating and also far away, and even strange. Concert footage of Zappa looks different from recent concert films. The cameras are hand-held in a way that indicates spontaneity, compared to the planned and polished swoops over the stage that you see now. Interviews and conversations are less guarded and more raw than what comes over the television now, where nothing feels spontaneous.
Zappa’s music with The Mothers of Invention and afterward gives no scent at all of corporate control. It’s sometimes full of hard-driving social criticism, even despair. Songs are witty, as well as sarcastic, satirical and mocking. Zappa’s orchestral compositions are dysrhythmic and dissonant, but in parts that demand improvisation you can hear the striking overall discipline.
Zappa was a rigorous talker, speaking with stunning certainty. Zappa’s lyrics can be funny, but he seems humorless in conversation and dead-on serious. You might also say pretentious, and it reminded me that for all the wild creativity people like to attribute to the time, there was also plenty of self-righteousness. The longer Eat That Question sits in my mind, the more perceptive it becomes – not just about one distinctive artist, but about an entire era.