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Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

(2016) *** R
93 min. Sony Pictures Classics. Director: Thorsten Schütte. Cast: Frank Zappa, Steve Allen, Angel.

/content/films/4931/1.jpgEver since the mid-20th century, to be a celebrated artist has meant living in a glass house, and the more the celebrity resists, the worse the intrusions become. And so the celebrity interview came to represent one of two things, or both, to the celebrity: an opportunity to “play nice” and throw some raw meat to the media, or a field of battle offering an opportunity to set the record straight about lies and misconceptions. From the evidence of Thorsten Schütte’s found-footage documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, avant-garde musician Zappa saw the interview as sometime endurance test, sometime amusement, and all-the-time chess match he could never lose, played as it was against lesser lights.

Zappa, who died in 1993 at the age of 52, remains best known as the rock icon who recorded and toured with his band the Mothers of Invention (which went through numerous iterations). Schütte’s career-spanning collection of interviews with Zappa tells his story “In His Own Words,” a story that also includes practical activism in support of his art, and a career in classical composition that wove through the years (most prominently attached to his experimental film 200 Motels) and intensified in his last decade.

Eat That Question comprises Zappa interviews, snippets of newsmagazine reports, pop-culture oddities (an early appearance “playing bike” on The Steve Allen Show, a What’s My Line? guest shot), a few choice musical performances (one aired on the Swedish show Opopoppa), and even a debate on Crossfire (where Zappa warns of America turning into a “fascist theocracy”). With nearly every appearance, Zappa builds his anti-establishment cred. Though he self-describes, with deceptive simplicity, as “an entertainer,” Zappa evinces a restless mind, easily tapped for creativity and intellect.

Like so many rock icons (John Lennon leaps to mind), Zappa before an interview mic falls into the roles of philosopher (“We’re not concerned enough about the quality of our lives”), victim of misunderstanding and misinterpretation (“I’m famous but most people don’t even know what I do”), and provocateur (“Dirty words don’t exist. This is a fantasy that is manufactured by religious fanatics and government organizations to keep people stupid”). And he’s rarely wrong. He can be short with interviewers and a bit petty, railing against fans of only his early work, for example, but he always has a valid point to make, even if only by interpretable satire.

Zappa waged a lifelong battle against closed-minded squares, exemplified in his infamous 1980s censorship clash with Tipper Gore over warning labels on rock albums. But at one point, Zappa insists that he doesn’t use his oft-controversial art for political or religious or social causes. With typical bluntness, he says, “I do my music for people who like music.” And indeed, people who like music will find something to like about Eat That Question. Even those who hate Zappa’s music will likely be fascinated by his musical reach and his ornery personality. Zappa fanatics will be in hog heaven at the treasure-trove assemblage, and it’s certain the doc will make some new fans of the devilish rock icon.

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