Friday, August 12, 2016

EAT THAT QUESTION Gives Us The Gift Of Frank Zappa’s Gab


(Dir. Thorsten Schütte, 2016)

Back in the late ‘80s to the mid ‘90s, I was a big Frank Zappa fan. Read his book, had stacks of his albums on CD and vinyl, collected bootleg recordings of his shows on old school tapes, etc.

But somewhere along the line, I lost my taste for his music.

Despite a lot of excellent musicianship, a lot of Zappa’s material I decided then was smarmy, crass, and had no heart. I sold most of his records (I kept Hot Rats), and pledged my allegiance to the Velvet Underground, when it came to weird ‘60s bands.

So it has been a couple of decades since I’ve heard some of the songs that are sampled in the new documentary, EAT THAT QUESTION: FRANK ZAPPA IN HIS OWN WORDS, which opens in my area today at Silverspot Cinema in Chapel Hill.

As the title indicates, the film is largely made up of Zappa interviews, from his first appearance as a mustache-less musician making music using two bicycles on The Steve Allen Show in 1963 to his bearded, frail looking last appearance on The Today Show in late 1993, but there are a lot of excerpts from his songs, instrumentals, concertos, and chamber works linking Frank’s frank chats together.

The opening credits use of the twangy blues rock of “Trouble Every Day” took me back to the many times I listened to Zappa’s 1965 debut “Freak Out” with The Mothers of Invention, and I recognized a lot of the ‘70s and ‘80s concert footage throughout that I had seen, and probably had on VHS, back in the day. So the film acted as a refresher course for me, as it reminded me both why I liked and later rejected Zappa’s work.

I never stopped enjoying hearing Zappa talk though, as he was always a sharp and funny interviewee and that’s what this doc, the first feature film by German director Thorsten Schütte, shows in spades.

Zappa’s early interviews resemble Bob Dylan’s as seen in D.A. Pennebaker’s classic 1967 doc DON’T LOOK BACK and Martin Scorsese’s NO DIRECTION HOME as they were both artists that wanted nothing to do with the so called revolution of the times, and they both sneered at reporters over stupid questions.

Within the film’s loose structure, which is chronological but lacks denotations of what year footage is from, or what show Zappa is appearing on (I mean, I know who TV talk show hosts like Steve Allen and Mike Douglas are, but won’t somebody please think about the children!), the man discusses his background, his distaste for the drug culture (“I have fired people for using drugs”), his freaky image (“I was always a freak, never a hippy”), the making of his insane 1971 movie 200 MOTELS and how his first classical compositions came about (“I heard some of what the stuff sounded like that I’d been writing and it was so ugly, I decided to go backwards and get into the melodic area again, then people started telling me my melodies were ugly”).

I think I laughed the biggest during this doc when a concertgoer says to a reporter that what Zappa does “is anti-music.”

Speaking about criticism for the profanity on many on many of his recordings, Zappa tells an interviewer, “There is no such thing as a dirty word. Here’s my stock line about that: there is no word, nor any sound, that you can make with your mouth that is so powerful that it will condemn you to the lake of fire the time when you hear it.” 

One of the highlights of the doc is one of the highlights of Zappa’s career: his fight with The Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) over the proposal to put warning stickers, later known as Parental Advisory labels on albums whose content is deemed to have violent, drug-related or sexual themes. A hilarious segment of Zappa’s 1985 Senate testimony against Tipper Gore and Florida Senator Paula Hawkins is shown, one that the man himself sampled on his The Mothers of Prevention” album released that same year.

Another late period highlight is Zappa’s trip to Czechoslovakia to meet with President Václav Havel, who was a huge Zappa fan and asked the musician to serve as a trade representative.

EAT THAT QUESTION was made in collaboration with the Zappa Family Trust, with Zappa’s wife Gail, who the film is dedicated to because of her 2014 death, and his youngest son Ahmet listed as Executive Producers. You may have heard about the family feud over the Zappa estate that has oldest son Dweezil and oldest daughter Moon fighting over their inheritances (however, both are thanked in the end credits). It’s funny to note that Zappa only speaks of his wife Gail once in the film calling her “a mean little sucker; a boss’s wife.”

Whatever one thinks of his music, Frank was a fascinating fellow whose outspoken views and abrasive talent could certainly hold an audience’s attention. Whether today’s audience will be interested is another matter. I would guess that this film is more for people who are fans or have some knowledge of Zappa going in than a newcomer experiencing his work and words for the first time.

But then again, maybe just what the kids today need is a good old fashioned freak out - albeit mostly in spoken word form.

More later...

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