New Frank Zappa doc challenges popular misconceptions about the musician

Sunday, September 18, 2016 - 5:07pm

Frank Zappa once said in an interview, “I don’t think anybody has ever seen the real Frank Zappa, because being interviewed is one of the most abnormal things that you can do to somebody.” Zappa’s words are a warning label, a way to tell the audience that the person in the documentary is not the person it’s portraying. For the next 90 minutes, audiences see interviews in which this abnormality is explored, diving into the idiosyncrasies of Zappa. Can anything he says be taken seriously, or is everything just another act? Regardless of his warning, “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” is the closest thing fans will get to knowing the real musical mastermind.

Thorsten Schütte (“Namibia Generation X”), a director known for TV documentaries, retells Zappa’s diverse career from his bicycle orchestra on “The Steve Allen Show” to his battle with cancer. Rather than rely on narration, Schütte exclusively uses footage of interviews and live performances. Zappa is such a distinct personality that he is the only qualified source to recount his work. Any other efforts to illustrate his career are futile. Watching a random music historian try to talk about him would feel phony, something Zappa would find hilarious.

Zappa was no stranger to slander in the press, and the media was just another instrument for Zappa to manipulate. “Eat That Question” addresses false claims, like the idea that Zappa frequently used psychedelic drugs, with vengeance. His disapproval toward drugs may not shock devoted fans, but those influenced by these media reports will be surprised to hear Zappa never took LSD and disliked marijuana, because his workaholic tendencies and endless discography would have been dampened. If there needed to be an anti-drug role model in the 20th Century, it should have been Zappa.

The documentary juxtaposes the interviews and Zappa’s zany performances to discover the motives behind his acts. Every lyric and every charade had a purpose, and there was never fluff in any of his material. The documentary, unfortunately, fails to live up to such high standards at all moments. Though predominantly engaging, it overstays its welcome when introducing his brief tenure as a pseudo-ambassador for Czechoslovakia. Although this displays Zappa’s eclectic life, it feels like a digression from what impacted fans the most: his music.  

“Eat That Question” does not attempt to summarize Zappa’s entire life; basic facts like his date of birth or miscellaneous trivia can be found easily and don’t require a documentary. Rather, it uses Zappa’s own words to give the viewer insight into the meaning behind his offbeat melodies and mockery.

Zappa satirized everything from the hippie subculture to new wave music; every trend was prone to his wrath. If he found something depressing or uninspiring, he didn’t shy away from saying it. For him, the obsequious nature of Americans was despicable. “Eat That Question” features an extended look at “Bobby Brown,” a song that scrutinizes the American Dream. “Bobby Brown” shows Zappa’s eccentricity and skeptical outlook most efficiently, and the retelling of this song feels funnier than ever.

In an age when fitting in is optimal and individuality is thrown out thanks to social media, everyone can learn a lot from Zappa. He proved that distinguishing oneself from the crowd is what makes us whole. The documentary highlights his authenticity and inspires viewers to not live blindly. Although it lags at times, “Eat That Question” successfully resurrects Zappa’s legacy for a new generation of music lovers.