Movie review: Sundance Film Festival – Eat that Question
Thorsten Schütte’s elegant assembly of largely unseen archival footage shows us the man behind the iconic moustache
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
Directed by Thorsten Schütte
Featuring: Frank Zappa, Tom Brokaw, Katie Couric, Tipper Gore
By Katherine Monk
PARK CITY, UT — If you thought you knew Zappa because you owned a copy of Joe’s Garage and read Rolling Stone, chances are, you were getting a redacted version of the man who faced off against Tipper Gore over censorship and was tossed out of Albert Hall for perceived obscenity.
Fortunately for all fans of Frank, both fierce and casual, German documentary filmmaker Thorsten Schütte spent eight years browsing international archives looking for the man behind the moustache, and what he uncovers isn’t just seldom-seen footage of the musician, composer and all-around provocateur in his prime.
He finds a man who was so far ahead of his time, he saw the rise of what he called a “fascist theocracy.” Disgusted by the rise of religious ideology in American politics, Zappa spoke out on countless occasions about how U.S. citizens were being spoon fed just enough education to make them viable workers, but not enough to make them critical thinkers.
The powers that be want to “keep people stupid” because that way they won’t question the straight diet of “cheese” they’ve been programmed to consume. Comments like these branded Zappa a counter-culture revolutionary and a hippie, but that’s why Schutte’s film is so eye-opening. It deconstructs the persona to find the persistent creative artist.
“Most people don’t know my music… they know me from interviews.” It was an irony that clearly rankled the Baltimore-born composer, but like a lot of things in Zappa’s life that weren’t altogether positive, he found a way to make it work out in his favour because he was smart enough to see the bigger picture.
His acute social vision made him an astute social critic, and that’s what Schütte’s film highlights from the moment it begins with an interviewer asking him to recite a moronic intro. Behind Zappa’s brown eyes a wily intelligence was undoing everything about the moment — just by looking into the camera. When one interviewer accuses him of being deeply cynical, he doesn’t deny it. He says he wishes it were catchy.
Created entirely from archival footage that’s rarely been seen, Schütte shows us Zappa’s first TV appearance on the Steve Allen show — where he played a concert on two bicycles — as well as rare concert footage from Europe, and his last televised interview before his death in 1993 from prostate cancer.
“I was always a fan of Zappa’s music since I was 12 years old, and over the years as a filmmaker-producer I would visit archives for other projects and I would always ask if they had any Zappa stuff,” said Schütte after the film’s Sundance premiere.
“And I’ve been looking at this footage since 2008, and when you look at it intensely, you see what Zappa stood for and you can see the various stages of his career. And it’s different from what you see in standard music documentaries where you see short cuts of archival and the usual suspects talking.”
As the title suggests, this is Zappa in his own words. And because he was so articulate, and so witty, Eat That Question is a highly entertaining voyage that also reframes Zappa as a pop culture figure. Even fans may be surprised to learn that Zappa was not into recreational drugs, and insisted the members of his band, The Mothers of Invention, remained clean for the duration of any given tour.
“I don’t care what people do in their own home, but on the road, drugs can get you into trouble and I don’t want to be standing on stage asking where’s the drummer?” Zappa said the only drugs he does use are prescriptions, mostly penicillin, because “I get the clap.”
Another revelation is Zappa’s self-professed conservatism. “I’m a conservative,” he says, quite matter-of-factly. “I hate Communists. They ask me to do the big Communist rally in France every year and offer a lot of money… and I always turn it down because I don’t like those people.”
Zappa didn’t suffer any brand of fool, and because so much of the media attention he garnered was the result of his suggestive lyrics, almost every interviewer gets skewered on their own sword as they run down the same list of predictable questions about obscenity.
One of the funnier scenes involves his attempt to have an orchestral concert at Albert Hall in London with the LSO. The concert was cancelled because they found his lyrics obscene: Apparently, he used the word “pad.” The reference was to a waitress, who wrote orders down on her pad, but the Albert Hall managers thought he was referring to a sanitary napkin.
It’s misunderstandings such as this that Eat That Question clears up once and for all, ensuring even the Zappateers and acolytes will find something new in this vibrant mix of music and thought.
“When we sat down in the edit room with all this footage [approximately 60 hours worth], we had to look at the key issues that shaped him, and the recurring patterns… and one was the lack of respect. He wasn’t given the respect he deserved,” said Schütte.
Another theme was his place in American culture, and how he looked at the U.S. as culturally impoverished and altogether stunted regarding the arts.
“And the third component was his entrepreneurial spirit that inspired him to go against the grain and allowed him to become the independent artist that he became. He stood his ground,” said the director.
“And for me, it’s been interesting to screen this film here because Zappa was in constant dialogue with what America was during his life, and from showing this film, I feel he still resonates with audiences, and this film is still very timely today.”
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words was acquired by Sony Pictures Classics and is slated for a theatrical release this summer.
THE EX-PRESS, January 29, 2016
Last updated July 7, 2016, 12:53 pm