Frank Zappa was an open book and an enigma; he was a public figure with no qualms expressing his outright opinions, yet one that always left an air of mystery. Where some saw someone who was strange, off-putting and perhaps even dangerous, others saw someone was forthright, relatable and righteous. Zappa was both an outsider and one of the most personable, down-to-earth people on the planet, celebrity or otherwise.
All of this is brought to a head in Thosten Schutte’s Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, a new documentary that — as the subtitle suggests — lets the avant-garde musician, filmmaker and activist speak for himself via long-lost interviews, archive footage and wild-and-loose concert venues. As enlightening as it is question-raising, it does the elusively empathetic personality right.
Unconventional in its dissection, Schutte’s latest opts not to intersect narration or talking head segments from any of his living friends, family members, fellow musicians or people who knew him best. Instead, it’s always Zappa at the front-and-center. No time wasted on relatives. No need to get commentary from his friends. If there’s one person who knew Frank Zappa, this film argues, it was Frank Zappa — and he always had more-than-a-few things to say about himself anyway.
Schutte’s touch is an invisible one, and I mean that in a good way. He weaves interview segment after interview segment into the story almost to their entirety, so as to fill this 93 minute feature with as much as Zappa as possible. And while it often makes Eat That Question feel like a compilation of YouTube clips rather than a fully fleshed-out film, it nevertheless gives the viewer the most objective impression of the artist as possible — whether they know every single one of his records or never heard a single track. Whether you love the guy, hate the man or barely knew him at all, it’s hard to see anyone walking out of this movie without something gleamed from the erratic free-thinker.
For Eat That Question isn’t about establishing Zappa’s legacy, or professing his genius at every step. As the musician himself notes at one point, he never found importance in being remembered. That kind of life is lived by presidents and kings, not by someone with Zappa’s total disregard for unions, communism, fascism and general society-imposed principles. But as the documentary shows, and doesn’t enforce, Zappa’s legacy is important because he created a following for himself without imposing self-righteousness or self-importance. His cynical humbleness, while certainly not universally beloved, made him all the more understandable, humble and ultimately more human — despite distancing himself from everything typically associated with “rock stars,” from no drug lifestyle to his off-the-wall concerts, filled with endless improv, instrument-less humming and audience participation.
Schutte makes a film that doesn’t feel the need to explain itself or follow the structure of a normal musician-based documentary, and that’s likely what Zappa would have wanted. Zappa, as eccentric and opinionated as they came, didn’t fit into the conventions others set for him, and that’s what makes him such a revolutionary figure, especially today. And even when we think we know him, Zappa always cast doubt, from suggesting that no one can truly be themselves in an interview, during an interview, to contracting a few minor opinions and statements along the way.
During his time on this earth, Zappa was called everything in the book, from “freak,” to “perverted” to “radical” to “genius.” But that’s not what Schutte cares about, because that’s not what Zappa cared about either. Eat That Question is not an all-compassing look at the personality, but that’s what makes it all the more illuminating. Zappa complains that people aren’t “accustomed to excellence” when it comes to his music, and perhaps that’s also the case with this new film. It never truly becomes a defining examination on Zappa and his influence, but it’s nevertheless all the more insightful for that very reason. Because Schutte understands the most important facet of Zappa’s life: it doesn’t matter if you know or understand him, so long as you accept him.
Eat That Question is more insightful than illuminating, but that's what makes it such a fitting tribute to Frank Zappa's eccentric genius.