The late Frank Zappa has been dead and gone for close to 23 years now. And yet “Eat That Question – Frank Zappa In His Own Words” feels very much like the movie he might have made about himself, in part because it conveys just how much the legendarily cantankerous Zappa hated being interviewed. This is, after all, someone who described rock journalism as “people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”
Made in association with the Zappa family, “Eat That Question” consists entirely of historical footage and offers no outside commentary to speak of regarding music or history or Zappa’s place in it. Instead, Zappa is shown speaking for himself, which is doubtless how he would have wanted it.
Indeed, the closest thing to alternative viewpoints come in the form of interview questions, and most of the ones shown here are pretty inane. “Eat That Question” opens with Zappa scowling at the camera as he is forced to recite some inane promotional spiel. And as he spars with various interviewers, some of them overtly hostile, Zappa exudes all the pleasure of a colonoscopy patient.
Small wonder that Zappa comes across as an inscrutable, not terribly pleasant grump here. But that would not have concerned him in the least. Asked to define his job at one point, he smirks, “I’m an entertainer.” And when asked toward the end how he wants to be remembered, the cancer-wracked Zappa’s answer is, “I don’t care.”
In demonstrating Zappa’s encounters with unfriendly gatekeepers and day-job types who couldn’t possibly understand what he was about, “Eat That Question” is a study in whiplash contrasts. Zappa was one of the most out-there weirdos in rock history, and in retrospect it’s kind of amazing that he prospered to the degree he did within the straight music industry for as long as he did.
Fittingly, the moments of lightness that emerge in “Eat That Question” are onstage, the performance footage of Zappa and his band playing some of the freakiest music ever to land within shouting distance of a mainstream audience. A born provocateur, Zappa had a well-honed sense of the absurd that manifested itself both in crude humor and sophisticated compositions that made him a renowned cultural figure across Europe (especially Czechoslovakia, where president Vaclav Havel was a fan).
Not all of this film’s instances of clashing worlds are warm and fuzzy. The London Symphony Orchestra’s percussion section looks pretty miffed while trying to perform Zappa’s composition “Pedro’s Dowry” at a recording session. And his 1963 appearance on “The Steve Allen Show,” where a young and besuited Zappa played the spokes of a bicycle with drumsticks, is positively surreal.
“As for your ‘music,’” Allen sneered afterward, “don’t ever do it around here again.”
Choice burn, dude, but the joke was on Allen and other gatekeepers who seemed to regard Zappa as a wild-eyed drug fiend – when Zappa was actually about as straight-edge as they come. He was happy to play along with the occasional game-show appearance (yes, he appeared on “What’s My Line” in 1971, identified by a blind-folded Soupy Sales based on the question of whether or not he had a mustache). But Zappa was also well-spoken enough to shine in the most mainstream venue of all: government.
Zappa’s finest hour as a provocateur came in 1985, when he stood up to Tipper Gore’s Parents Music Resource Center and eloquently testified before Congress about censorship and freedom of expression. All the practice he’d had with confrontational interviewers turned out to be the ideal preparation for locking horns with grandstanding politicians.
After the credits roll, “Eat That Question” concludes with Zappa reappearing in an old public-service announcement he’d taped, imploring viewers to “Register, and vote like a beast.” Then he flashes what looks like the closest thing to a genuine smile anywhere in the film.
Now more than ever.
Eat That Question
Cast: Frank Zappa
Director: Thorsten Schutte
Length: 93 minutes
Rating: R (language, sexual references, brief nudity)
Chapel Hill: Silverspot.