EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS (2016)
Directed by Thorsten Schütte
Sony Classics, 93 minutes, R (language, brief nudity, sexual references)
* * * ½
Never heard of this film? It made a splash at Sundance, went into limited release, and then to video after a paltry box office of under $350,000. You can see it on Netflix or YouTube. Should you? That depends on whether you think Zappa was a charlatan, a genius, or a bit of each. If you opted for either of the latter two, give it a try, though I won’t guarantee you’ll be enlightened.
There is no doubt that Frank Zappa (1940-1993) was enigmatic and polarizing. He gets labeled as a radical and a non-conformist, but these doesn’t fit well. He called himself a “practical conservative” who didn’t use drugs and fired band members that did. After a brief first marriage, he wedded the former Adelaide Sloatman in 1967 and remained married until his death from prostate cancer in 1993. Pretty square, except they named their kids Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet, and Diva! He didn’t like groupies and was reputed to be monastic on the road—odd for a chain smoker and avowed atheist, and out of keeping with his flair for the provocative or his disdain for convention and social niceties. His music was called “free form” and “improvisational,” but that might not be accurate either; it’s hard to know what sort of musical patterns rattled around in Zappa’s brain.
If I had to pick a one-word descriptor for him, it would be “Trickster.” Keep that in mind if you watch this documentary, which is decidedly not any sort of biopic or musical retrospective. It is, as billed, an assemblage of Zappa’s thoughts on various subjects, most of them musical, interspersed with some little known footage. Zappa on TV was a thing to behold; he could be charming and almost cuddly one moment and irascible the next. We also get the sense that he’s telling us exactly what he wants to reveal and not a syllable more. On any sort of stage Zappa was completely in control. We see him without filters in concerts where he slays every sacred cow imaginable and goes to places so dark they make Jim Morrison seem like a choirboy. Yet we also see him with hair pulled back and besuited before Congress testifying against Tipper Gore’s plan to place warning labels on records. We also watch him become defiant before a group of rightwing inquisitors to whom he proclaims himself the real conservative. In other words, I doubt you’ll discover the true mind of Frank Zappa from this film.
Will you find the key to his music? I’m not sure there was one other than the fact that Zappa equated making music with life itself. This is, after all, a guy who first came to the public’s attention in 1963 as a clean-cut youth coaxing sounds from bicycle spokes and handlebars on the Steve Allen Show. Three years later he was long haired, goateed, and fronting The Mothers of Invention, perhaps history’s most provocative rock band to actually get radio airplay. He also had bands named Flo & Eddie (short for Phlorescent Leech and Eddie), and the Grand Wazoo, the latter a jazz ensemble. Jazz was, apparently, his greatest musical love. Predictably, it was of the avant-garde variety. Zappa also pioneered in electronic music, made films, and wrote classical compositions, though he won a Grammy for a jazz composition, and his largest-selling record of all time was the goofy “Valley Girl,” and he charted again with “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.”
So who was Frank Zappa? Perhaps the only answer is “yes.” Make any sense? If it doesn’t, maybe this isn’t the documentary for you. If you kind of catch my drift, try it. I don’t think this film will change anybody’s mind one way or the other about Zappa as an artist, but you’ll not take many journeys like this one.