Tuesday, June 21, 2016

“Eat That Question”– Movie Review


This week, I attended a Village Voice screening of the new documentary “Eat That Question:  Frank Zappa in His Own Words”.


Through a series of interviews and performances, Frank Zappa either talks about or demonstrates his musical background and creative process. 


Frank Zappa characterized himself as an entertainer.  In some ways, that seems appropriate since he was, indeed, entertaining.  But it was also an accurate description because he was so much more than merely one thing:  he was a musician with a strong background in classical music who wound up expressing himself in the rock genre.  He was also a composer, who not only wrote and performed his own songs, but also worked on expansive orchestrations which he sometimes conducted.  Perhaps his most distinguishing characteristic was as a gadfly. 

One particular way in which Zappa was considered a nuisance was in his ongoing fights against censorship.  This battle appeared to come to a head when Zappa had to appear before The United States Senate in the late 1980’s in order to defend the lyrical content of his records.  Tipper Gore – the wife of then-Senator Al Gore – started an organization which became known as The Parents’ Music Resource Center (PMRC).  Basically, this was a self-proclaimed censorship group backed somewhat by the potentially-intimidating authoritative nature of the federal government.  The PMRC claimed the purpose of their existence was to help fellow parents in protecting children from popular music which contained “obscene” lyrics.  In his testimony, Zappa crushed them.

In the early 1990’s, Zappa was diagnosed with prostate cancer.  Given the severely limited treatment options in those days, there wasn’t very much that could be done to help him, except attempts to impede its progress.  Over time, the illness took its toll on the great man; he became weak and tired.  Despite his lifelong reputation as a workaholic, he found that he now had to work less.  One of his final projects was an ambitious orchestral arrangement he hoped to conduct, but due to the debilitating nature of his cancer, he was forced to seek out another, younger conductor.  Zappa finally succumbed to the cancer in 1993.   


The word “genius” is frequently tossed around recklessly, but in the case of Frank Zappa was extremely  appropriate, if not a total understatement.  Zappa was not only a brilliant musician who composed songs that occasionally had intricate and complex melodies, but he was also a keen observer of culture and society at large, capable of making the most incisive (and often humorous) commentaries.  The documentary about his life, “Eat That Question”, however, is not nearly up to the level of his brilliance.  Although director Thorsten Schütte claims this was his passion project for the past eight years, it doesn’t seem that enough effort was made in compiling these clips given that amount of time.

For one thing, the documentary lacks structure.  “Eat That Question” is a bunch of interviews with Zappa done over the years; they are strung together, periodically broken up by performances on television or in concert.  The viewer doesn’t know where in Zappa’s life we are until the end where the final interview shows him gaunt, pale and drawn while he’s dying of prostate cancer.  It would have been informative if the date (or at least the year) and location of the various interviews and performance footage had been provided via superimposing it on the screen or by using title cards in between. 

That this information is absent suggests a certain degree of lackadaisical attitude or carelessness on the part of the filmmaker.  Clearly, there is some black and white television footage from the 1960’s and 1970’s, but exactly when or what the title of the show was or the name of the host doing the interview are pieces of information that are inexplicably omitted.  In addition, while we see Zappa playing with his band, The Mothers Of Invention, we learn nothing about who these people were or how Zappa formed the band.  Yes, this documentary literally is just Frank Zappa in his own words – but maybe a few more words here and there might have come in handy. 

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (2016) on IMDb

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