Published Jul 06, 2016It would be a monumental task for anyone to boil the life and work of Frank Zappa down enough to fit into a feature-length film, but wisely, Thorsten Schütte takes a different approach with Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. The subtitle says it all: the film that doesn't shine a light on one of music's most eccentric figures by examining his monstrous back catalogue or interviewing family, friends, musical peers and academics; instead, it fixes the lens squarely on the man himself.
Solely using television interviews and performance footage, the film takes viewers through Zappa's early admiration of composers Edgard Varèse and Anton Webern, his appointment as a leader of the antiestablishment by legions of listeners, his views on censorship and politics and late reflections on his own life after his prostate cancer diagnosis. He's seen playing a bicycle as an instrument on The Steve Allen Show at 22 years old, writing music and lyrics for We're Only In It for the Money and 200 Motels, screwing his face ever so slightly for every banal question asked him by television reporters, only to deliver pointed, articulate answers.
Schütte's eschewal of a structured narrative is at its most striking in the latter half of the film, where it's better suited to the serious looks at Zappa's views on censorship, himself and his art in his career's later stages. While we can glean a lot about both the man and his mannerisms through the collage of archival footage, other facets of Zappa's life are unfortunately shelved. His wife and four children are mentioned only a handful of times, a subject worth exploring even more given the recent drama surrounding their father's legacy that is now coming to light. Apart from performance footage of "Bobby Brown (Goes Down)" and "Tinseltown Rebellion," few of Zappa's other celebrated compositions (either solo or with the Mothers of Invention) are given screen time — a tough task given the size of his recording catalogue, but one the film feels it can complete by painting nearly all Zappa's work (save his classical compositions) with the same "it's shocking and crude" brush.
Eat That Question… stays true to Schütte's intentions to paint a portrait of one of music's most colourful characters using only Zappa's words, but it makes the documentary somewhat accessible to the uninitiated; hopefully, it will persuade them to dig deeper into his fascinating work.