It would be somewhat easy to do a straightforward documentary on Frank Zappa: zoom in on some grainy B&W pictures of him as an R&B-loving teen; chart his rise from Sixties avant-rock bandleader to symphonic composer, from antiestablishment iconoclast to anticensorship activist; interview some of the dozens, if not hundreds, of musicians inspired by him; drop in a few nuggets of We’re Only In It for the Money or 200 Motels–era concert footage. Of course, Zappa was never one to do anything the easy, or easily comprehensible, way — we’re talking about an artist who composed a concerto for two bicycles and railed against the norm at every opportunity. Better, then, to honor his life and work with a jagged, collage-like assembly of archival footage. And, given the eloquence and biting wit he displayed in his lyrics, Congressional testimonies and conversations, to let the man speak for himself.
Enter Eat That Question, a French-German doc on the late, great musician that tells Zappa’s story solely through, to quote the subtitle, “his own words.” Judging from the fan-filled crowd at its Sundance Film Festival premiere last night, a good deal of the audience didn’t need a primer on his nearly 30 years of pop-music pranksterism, or much prompting to whoop appreciatively when a clip of the mondo mustachioed singer crooning “Bobby Brown (Goes Down)” from Sheik Yerbouti came on. (Which was a slow-dancing hit in Norwegian discos!) They simply wanted Frank, uncut if not live. And thanks to director Thorsten Schutte’s deep-dive compilation of rare European TV appearances, interviews, network news reports, bootleg snippets and philosophical soundbites, they got 90 minutes of prime all-Frank, all-the-time freak outs. (Sony Picture Classics has nabbed distribution rights, which a probable release some time in the later part of 2016.)
Starting with an announcer coaching Zappa on how to do a late-show movie bumper — which ends with the musician sarcastically repeating its tagline over and over and over again — Eat That Question ping-pongs around several decades’ worth of footage, from an early (and clean-shaven) appearance on The Steve Allen Show to a Today show sit-down in his recording studio shortly before his death in 1993. He’s quizzed by everybody from a Pennsylvania state trooper on a public-access program to conservative columnist Robert Novak on Crossfire, calmly dropping truth bombs and parrying questions about his radical stances with short, sharp and impressively smart jabs. Various incarnations of the Mothers of Invention, Flo and Eddie, panelists from the game show What’s My Line, the Philharmonic orchestra and the PMRC all drop by, but this is Frank’s show. And the more he disarms intellectual enemies, the more he reminds you that he could out-argue anyone who thought his outrageousness was merely shock art. Warnings against eating yellow snow shared brain space with astoundingly complex notions regarding art, freedom, and thinking for yourself.
If anything, the doc could use more actual music from those 1967 – 1974 glory years, though a concert clip of him performing the title track of Tinseltown Rebellion, complete with diss samples of new-wave hits, nearly makes up for it. (Whether Alex Winter’s in-progress doc on Zappa, which will also adhere to an archival-clips-only format, is going to double down on that era musicwise remains to be seen.) But as Schutte said in the postscreening Q&A, he combed through 150 hours of footage with the notion of proving that “when you watch him speak, there’s a different Zappa that comes out if you give him the space.” That was part of the reason he scoured archives all over the world for rare clips, and partially why the Zappa estate had given him their blessing. Three of Frank’s children — Moon, Ahmet and Diva; Dweezil was M.I.A. — were in the audience, and when asked whether his widow, Gail Zappa, had seen the movie before her passing last October, Schutte replied she had and liked it. “No, she fucking loved it,” Ahmet shouted, to rapturous applause.
The director also wanted to make this film because “it didn’t exist” — “it” being a portrait of a man who was more than just the sum of his back catalog. When asked whether he wanted to be remembered for his music near the end of his life, Zappa said he didn’t care whether he was remembered at all. He also replied, when queried whether he was an eccentric genius, “Eccentric? Sure. Genius? Maybe.” The answer, as this movie proves, was that the correct answer was yes to both. And that a creatively restless, intellectually curious, rule-breaking artist like him could never be forgotten.