Twenty-three years after his death, musical misfit Frank Zappa may be better known for his battles with censors and outrageous concert performances than his actual music. The 62 albums released during his lifetime challenged all but his most dedicated fans as he mixed R&B, jazz, spoken words, pop, rock and avant-garde classical sounds.
In many ways, he achieved greater fame abroad. Indeed late in life he was treated as a conquering hero by fans in Czechoslovakia in 1990. So it’s telling and perhaps fitting that the first documentary to take a serious look at Zappa’s legacy should come from a German, who spend the better part of eight years tracking down archival footage of interviews, TV appearances and concert performances by Zappa
Thorsten Schüette’s “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” will, one hopes, restore Zappa to his rightful place in music history as a man who for all the zany satire in his music was deadly serious about his work.
As these interviews over the span of many years illustrate, Zappa was a man determined not to play by establishment rules but rather to get his experimental music out to those who wished to hear it without the least bit of concern how great those numbers of fans actually were.
He didn’t mind polarizing audiences or upsetting the music industry. Yet this guy, who looked and sometimes acted like a hippie, was, surprisingly, anti-hippie and most decidedly anti-drugs. Indeed he would fire anyone in his band, the Mothers of Invention, who did drugs while touring.
Schüette has found real doozies in his archival search. The most hilarious and telling is an old black-and-white TV clip from a 1963 Steve Allen Show in which a youthful, clean-shaven Zappa plays music on a bicycle along with Allen’s orchestra. If he was kidding, he certainly never cracked a smile.
For the most part, even when he is kidding, Zappa has the look of a mad professor intensely involved with his work. He speaks of his discovery of modern classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern and Edgard Varese and later you see him working with the London Symphony Orchestra on his own avant-garde compositions.
He also bravely went to Washington to testify before the U.S. Senate in 1985 against the Parents Music Resource Center’s proposals to put warning labels on records with explicit content.
He described these labels as an “ill-conceived piece of nonsense, which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children and promises to keep the courts busy for years dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design.”
For all this full and amazingly prolific life, that ended far too soon at age 52, Zappa is perhaps best known for “Valley Girl,” a novelty song he wrote and performed with his daughter Moon. Let’s hope “Eat That Question” changes this.
Opens: June 24, 2016 Los Angeles, New York (Sony Pictures Classics)
Production companies: A Les Films du Poisson, UFA Fiction presentation in co-production with Arte France, SWR in association with the Zappa Family Trust
Director: Thorsten Schüette
Producer: Estelle Fialon
Co-producer: Jochen Laube
Executive producers: Thorsten Schüette, Gail Zappa, Ahmet Zappa
Editor: Willibald Wonneberger
R rating, 90 minutes