Lawrence Toppman

‘Eat That Question’ shows every side of the unique Frank Zappa

The documentary “Eat That Question” shows why anyone who cares about American music should know something about Frank Zappa.
The documentary “Eat That Question” shows why anyone who cares about American music should know something about Frank Zappa. AP

When I was in college, a guy two doors down played Frank Zappa’s “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” for about a month straight. It drove his neighbors nuts. But he said, “No matter what you think of Zappa now, if you listened to him every single day, you would love him.”

German documentarian Thorsten Schütte makes a case for Zappa’s strange, multifaceted brilliance in “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words.” After seeing it, I am willing to concede my dormmate may have had a small point.

The film follows a roughly chronological path from the 1960s, when the 22-year-old Zappa made a perversely funny appearance on “The Steve Allen Show,” to 1992, when he recorded his orchestral album “The Yellow Shark.” (He died of prostate cancer the following year at 52.) Like many moments in the film, the Allen scene made me laugh aloud: Zappa led a concerto for two bicycles, electronic tape and improvising orchestra. I wondered if Peter Schickele, whose P.D.Q. Bach came later, had seen this.

We watch Zappa in interviews and concert; every scene consists of Zappa performing or speaking, and no modern-day talking heads intervene. That means some things can be taken at face value – his love for classical composers Igor Stravinsky, Edgard Varèse and Anton Webern – and some cannot. He straight-facedly says he wrote his first compositions because of the attractive patterns the notes made on the page.

All his facets come through: the satirist, the prankster, the self-described political conservative with libertarian leanings, the anti-authoritarian who urged people to vote, the man tolerant of anything except intolerance. You sample all flavors of his music: free jazz, structured jazz, blues, lounge, disco, hard rock, classical, ’80s pop – which he satirized in his only top 40 song, “Valley Girl” – and even doo-wop. (He co-wrote and produced the ballad “Memories of El Monte” for the Penguins, not heard here.)

When son Dweezil was born, Zappa filled in the spot for “religion” on the birth certificate with “musician.” “Eat That Question” shows how true that was.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

Eat That Question

Director: Thorsten Schütte.

Length: 93 minutes.

Rating: R (language, some sexual references and brief nudity).

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