It’s commonplace to see documentaries on musicians that do too little by trying to do too much. Nothing Can Hurt Me, filled to the brim with talking heads of people who lived around 70’s alternative rock innovators Big Star, doesn’t get us much closer to the elusive band, and Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert film Shine a Light, despite elaborate camera techniques and a breathless performance by the band, winds up wallowing in its own pointlessness. Even diehard fans of the groups can’t help but feel disappointed. Thorsten Schütte’s Eat That Question takes a different approach. An assemblage of interviews with composer, guitarist, free-thinker and all-around provocateur Frank Zappa over his entire musical career, the film eschews virtually anything that isn’t Frank Zappa talking on-camera (hence the film’s subtitle—“Frank Zappa in His Own Words”), with a few music performances included for context.
It sounds like something that could be done by a fan with videos ripped from YouTube, or at least from a lot of old VHS tapes. However the actual result is something very cinematically interesting and engaging. Throughout the 30 years of footage, we get the opportunity to know Zappa as a person, to familiarize ourselves with his sense of humour and chart the development of his views on life and music. Thankfully, Schütte was committed to finding and using the best-looking footage possible, scouring TV archives the world over. The oldest clip, Zappa’s avant-garde Trojan horse he snuck onto The Steve Allen Show in 1963, in the form of a gag involving playing the bicycle, is familiar to most Zappaphiles, but in Eat That Question it looks and sounds better than ever before.1
In many ways, Frank Zappa’s world is full of Trojan horses. His music might contain notions of doo-wop, jazz, funk, ethnic music, 20th century classical, and musique concrète in a single song. His public persona acted this way too. As his music career never yielded chart-topping smash-hits, it’s clear Zappa saw TV as an opportunity to make his unique outward appearance work for him and get his music and ideas broadcasted, for better—in an 80’s interview he affirms “I’ll do whatever I can to say my point of view wherever it can be said”—or for worse—as he points out in a in an earlier interview, “more people know my face from a poster or a TV interview than have heard my music. I’m famous but most people don’t know what I do”.
For the most part, the film moves chronologically, smartly taking the time to focus more on topics as they come up, rather than simply recounting events. Zappa discusses his initial interest in music through modern composers like Edgar Varese and Igor Stravinsky, his anti-drug stance, his feelings on the music industry and “hippie establishment”, and the issue of censorship that followed him his whole life. It could be said the film is doing a disservice, focusing on Zappa’s idea and politics more than the music itself, but what emerges is a portrait of a man who followed his dreams and did it his own way. Even someone not interested in a discography that includes the tracks ‘The Girl Wants to Fix Him Some Broth’ or ‘G-Spot Tornado’ can appreciate that.
Far from being didactic, Schutte’s method of letting Zappa and only Zappa speak for himself means no-one has his back; no cutaways of famous people to affirm his stance. We’re not being asked to agree with Zappa—even fans of the completely computerised Synclavier music he made later in his life may raise an eyebrow when he calls it a purer form of music, improving it the art “by subtracting the human element, which is the most unreliable part of doing music”. Ultimately, Zappa doesn’t have to be wrong or right. The lasting message of both his interviews and his music is to keep an open mind and welcome all possibilities; an aesthetic he calls “anything, anytime, anyplace, for no reason at all”. Anything can be music. In a lot of ways Shutte’s approach is reminiscent of Zappa’s own. Many of Zappa best albums—Uncle Meat, Burnt Weeny Sandwich, Apostrophe (‘)—were pieced together from various live and studio sources, sometimes recorded years apart, but they still create a whole. “The whole body of my work is one composition”, he tells us in 1991, two years before his death. His interviews, then, provide a life-long making-of for both that one piece and the person who made it.