Steve Allen didn’t know what to make of Frank Zappa. The clean-cut young musician was promising to “play the bicycle” on the set of The Steve Allen Show in 1963, spinning the wheels and tapping on the spokes. The result, with the help of a tuneless orchestra behind him and a confederate in the sound booth adding bursts of recorded noise, was a ridiculous cacophony. Allen, who’d one day present himself as a watchdog for good taste, jokingly told Zappa never to come back.
Four years later, Zappa was probably best known for a poster of him sitting naked on the toilet. The envelope really moves when you push it.
Thorsten Schütte’s new documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words follows the musician’s career without framing it with Behind the Music–style retrospective interviews or narration of any kind. It just presents footage from television appearances, Zappa’s early music videos, concerts, etc., edited and compiled without comment. There’s no explicit attempt to put forth a Grand Unifying Theory of Zappa; Schütte immerses us in the competing aspects of Zappa’s public persona for their own sake. The results are fascinating.
Not that Zappa’s contemporary interviewers don’t try to pin him down, wondering how the same person can be both vulgarian and avant-garde composer, a counterculture icon and a non-drug user. In his early interviews, Zappa seems amused by this, candidly tweaking expectations.
One interviewer suggests how people might classify him — rock star, freak and so on — and asks Zappa if there are any labels he missed. Zappa’s response is self-deflating and a little heartbreaking: “There might be a couple people who think of me as a composer. An isolated minority, perhaps.”
Indeed, Zappa seems most fully engaged in the clips when he’s composing and rehearsing, making something new. In one, he shows off his Synclavier, an early synthesizer that he says allows him to achieve precision he never could with human musicians. Nevertheless, it’s in leading his band that we see Zappa at play. There are flashes of glee, a sly promise of anarchy in numbers the band has rehearsed to the note. Zappa’s infamy and the circus of public image give way to his doing and presenting the work. By offering no comment, Eat That Question moves beyond curiosity about an outré performer and into a sympathetic intimacy.
The lack of a filter is apt, as Zappa detested anything that stood between him and his audience. He waged war with MGM Records for altering his recordings, and later fought against the U.S. government for trying to label them as dangerous. Yet Schütte also shows us Zappa’s visit to post-Soviet Czechoslovakia, where he met with president Václav Havel and was lauded as a hero. Perhaps it takes a former totalitarian society to appreciate his stated creative aesthetic: “Anything, anytime, for any reason at all.”