Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

If you’re not a Zappa fan, you may well leave the theatre wondering what all the fuss is about.

Eat That

If you’re already a fan of Frank Zappa, you’ll probably love Thorsten Schütte’s documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Assembled entirely from archival footage, it lives up to its subtitle, consisting of a lot of talking (mostly by Zappa himself, who loves to hold forth as a self-styled provacateur) plus a little music, mostly in the later stages of the film. Independent of their interest in Zappa’s persona and music, I suspect this documentary will raise nostalgic longings in some individuals, mostly straight white men of a certain age, who wish they could go back to the days when they ruled American popular culture and could be crudely misogynistic without fearing criticism.

If you’re not a Zappa fan, you may well leave the theatre wondering what all the fuss is about. Although Schütte does include some longer clips of Zappa’s music, most are in the last half of the film, and anyone not already fascinated with Zappa may well have given up by then. It sure won’t make you want to go out and listen to his music, because there’s not that much included in this film, and a good percentage of what is included seems chosen to be as off-putting as possible.

The most admirable thing about Eat That Question may well be the service it performs by locating and editing together this vast collection of clips. Some are priceless, like the clip of a young Zappa playing a bicycle on the Steve Allen show, while many others are repetitive and of interest only to diehard fans. Granted, if you’re making an all-archival documentary, you can only use the materials you can locate and get permission to use. But television talk shows were as vacuous in the 1960s and 1970s as they are today, as were most of the little clips used to pad out news programming, and stringing together a selection of those materials doesn’t make them any less vacuous. Schütte makes no attempt to date the various clips (the presentation seems to be vaguely chronological, ending with Zappa’s death), leaving you to make guesses based on Zappa’s facial hair.

Eat That Question, which was produced in association with the Zappa Family Trust, asks no interesting questions and omits as much as possible anything negative about Zappa. So there’s nothing about band members suing him, or his arrest for creating pornography, and his misogyny is persistently downplayed (a statement about groupies as providing “human sacrifices” is played for laughs, as you would expect in a dudebro world). There’s talk about censorship, always presenting Zappa as an innocent victim, but nothing about the lyrics of, say, “Jewish Princess” (“I want a nasty little Jewish princess/With long phony nails and a hairdo that rinses/A horny little Jewish princes/ with a garlic aroma that could level Tacoma…”). You can argue about what Zappa meant by those lyrics, but this documentary chooses to avoid the issue entirely.

What’s most interesting in Eat That Question may be the glimpses of a less camera-ready Zappa that somehow made it through the editing process. When he’s testifying in protest of efforts to label rock albums as appropriate for different age groups, he reveals he’s never bought toys for his four children (although he loves to mention them in interviews, presenting himself as a solid family man with a mortgage), because that’s his wife’s job. Even better, he doesn’t even have a clue how children’s toys are marketed, or why some people might find age-range suggestions for toys useful. Clips from one of Zappa’s films reveal women with their clothes off and men with their clothes on, and there’s nothing original or progressive about that tired old trope. In one interview, he claims not to be his band’s boss, then details all the ways he is in control of just everything they do (and in a different interview, does claim to be the boss). Zappa also loves to criticize the system that made him rich, decrying how tough it is to make a living as a musician, a lament belied by clips shot inside his spacious home in Hollywood Hills (which was recently listed for sale at almost $5.5 million).

In the end, what is most disappointing about Eat That Question is its choice to play it safe, treating Zappa and his music as products to be made as inoffensive as possible, the better to increase sales. I don’t think Zappa would appreciate that decision, but since he died in 1993 (of prostate cancer, at age 52), he’s not around to defend himself. | Sarah Boslaugh

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