And now, for something completely different. Frank Zappa as an artist has such widespread fame that just about everyone knows of him by name, if not by his music. I personally happen to fall to the former category. I don’t think I had ever even heard one of his songs before this documentary prompted me to browse through his extensive oeuvre. So when the opportunity to see Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words presented itself, I felt compelled to watch it. It was time to educate myself, and what better way to do that than through the very own words of Zappa himself. The film offers several interesting points of focus to Frank Zappa’s life, such as Zappa’s early TV appearance in the Steve Allen show where he plays a bicycle like a musical instrument, Frank fighting censorship in the 80s, and of course Zappa visiting a Prague, that proved to be a major center of Zappa fans, to sign the country’s very first legitimate contract to distribute his music after years of illegal bootleg copies being the only way for his music to be listened during the Soviet years.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the documentary is that rather than using B-roll footage and plenty of voice-over narration to build some type of cohesive narrative and overall picture of Frank Zappa’s career as an artist, like you usually tend do with these type of projects, Thorsten Schütte’s film has decided to not do any of that. Instead Eat That Question consists largely of old, rarely seen archive material of Zappa talking about himself and his music, with some live performances thrown in for some additional flavor. The ending result is a music documentary that, at least to me, feels very out of the norm. You will not find the typical clichés here, such as recapping Frank’s entire career album by album while a conveyor belt of interviewees sing praise of Zappa to the higher echelons of Heaven, instead what you get is a very close and personal look into Zappa as a person through the man himself, via several conducted interviews from all parts of the globe that span several decades in time. Even if acting natural while being filmed is contrary to the very idea of acting naturally, as Frank himself at one point mentions in the film, you do get this strange sense of true intimacy from the film, like you were alone in the room with Frank, just the two of us, chatting away about music and stuff. It’s highly captivating experience thanks to Zappa’s inherent charisma and his great sense of humor. Unfortunately the documentary is only around hour and a half long in length so you feel almost cheated once you realize the ending credits have started, you could have easily sat through another thirty minutes, but on the positive side that means it’s very condensed and lean film that doesn’t linger around or drag its feet too much. And above all, it leaves you hungry for more for Zappa.
As weird as it sounds, in certain way the documentary is a bit challenging to view. Though clearly moving chronologically from his early days as a musician to his inevitable death, the film has made a conscious decision to not mark any dates on the featured archive footage, so that combined with the lack of any narration to give you context means you are very much left on your own to figure out from what time period any given clip is from. It’s unconventional, but I like the approach because it allows you to focus entirely on Zappa’s words without any need for distractions like framing sequences when jumping forward in time, plus it’s even kinda fun for you try to figure out the year through visual clues, such as clothing and advances in technology.
A long term Frank Zappa fan most likely would be able to get more out of this than I did, as much of the film features very rarely seen footage, but that isn’t to say there isn’t anything for people less familiar with Zappa. As a complete newcomer to Zappa I can attest the documentary works as a very good introductory look to the type of person Frank was and to give you a nice small taste of what his music is like, even at the risk of getting you addicted in the process. Honestly, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve had to listen the song “Bobby Brown” after first seeing a live performance of it in this documentary.