Leah Greenblatt
June 24, 2016 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

Current Status
In Season
release date

We gave it a B+

Musical anarchist, mustache virtuoso, perpetual agitator of the status quo: Frank Zappa earned those superlatives and many more before he succumbed to cancer at the age of 52, nearly a quarter century ago. Thorsten Schuette’s new documentary doesn’t pretend to offer any kind of linear or completist portrait of one of rock’s most enduringly gonzo stars, probably because a conventional Behind the Music-style treatment never would have suited him anyway; if there was anything Zappa despised, it was conformity—though he did do a remarkable amount of press for a guy so bent on defying it. (An irony he readily copped to: “I’m famous,” he once said, “but most people don’t even know what I do.”)

The film is comprised entirely of archival TV appearances, home movies, and performance footage of Zappa both solo and alongside his sprawling band the Mothers of Invention, with no nods to framing devices or contemporary talking heads. And the music itself is still as skronky, dissonant, and far out as anything ever unleashed upon the mainstream. (Zappa was nothing if not a Father of Invention; his output, including some 40 posthumous releases, adds up to a staggering 100-plus albums). That leaves viewers who know him only from his lone Top 40 single, the 1982 novelty hit “Valley  Girl”—or not at all—to fill in biographical details on their own and most likely find another way into his slippery, sometimes mystifying charisma.

Maybe they’ll uncover early glimmers of it in a clip of a very young Frank, sharp-suited and clean-shaven and playing a bicycle like an instrument on The Steve Allen Show; or years later when he swaggers onto the set of What’s My Line in acid wash and paisley, teasing guesses out of a blindfolded Soupy Sales; or facing off against Tipper Gore at a Congressional hearing on record obscenity labels (Tipper, alas, won that one); or accepting a hero’s welcome from an ecstatic crowd in the newly liberated Czech Republic. 

Eat That Question is a fitting title for a movie that never quite gets at the mystery of Zappa’s contradictions, even as it stacks up intimate live clips and fierce monologues from a rich trove of vintage interviews. (There’s a whole Book of Frank manifesto to be built from all the memorable quotes here). He claimed not to care what he would be remembered for, but his ferocious drive to be heard and seen was undeniable; he was glad to go on Crossfire and rail against “right-wing fascists” Reagan and Bush, even while he called himself a conservative and claimed to hate Communists, too (“those people”); he was a long-married family man with four kids and a mortgage who rarely missed a chance to extol the joy of groupies.

If Eat bites off more than it seems ready to chew, it’s still a fascinating if patchy portrait of a rare and true iconoclast—a man whose lifelong art project combined all-American ambition with pure, undiluted eccentricity. Or as he said himself, in another context, “Give a guy a big nose and some weird hair, and he’s capable of anything.” B+

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