Frank Zappa was, if nothing else, an iconoclast who blurred the lines between high and low, pop and the underground. He was spiky interviewee and an outsized personality every bit as attention-grabbing as his art. Is there another person whom Paul McCartney, Jeff Buckley, and Pere Ubu all cite as an influence?
Maybe Bob Dylan. And Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, the new documentary-cum-biopic about Zappa, is openly indebted to cinematic portraits of Dylan like No Direction Home. We see Zappa sparring with interviewers and engaging in rhetorical jousting matches, but none has the electricity of Dylan at his most combustible.
Mostly, Eat That Question comes closest to a DVD extra for his most ardent fans. It’s a collection of interviews punctuated by archival footage and performances. We see a sharply dressed and clean-shaven Zappa in an early appearance on the “Steve Allen Show” where he provokes the host by “playing” a bicycle and insisting that the audiences’ noisy disapproval is part of the music too.
Unfortunately, little context is offered. The clips are rarely dated and there’s no connecting thread beyond Zappa’s own voice. And boy, what a grating voice it is. Zappa made a side career out of his own grumpy persona. He consistently shunned the very press that found him so fascinating. While the counterculture was at its height, Zappa claimed to be a conservative and a libertarian. He decried drug use and did a series of PSA’s during the Reagan administration where he claimed the hardest drug he ever did was penicillin after a nasty case of the clap.
Despite his grumpy persona, Zappa gained a fanatical following. A trip to recently liberated Eastern Europe—where legions sing along to Zappa’s lyrics in what one guesses is phonetic English—proves his worldwide magnetism. And Zappa seemed to thrive off of that energy, ossifying into a caricature of himself long before his premature death in 1993. The documentary offers Zappa long soliloquies to express bromides about the contrast between his outrageous persona and his mortgage-owning life.
Zappa’s rabid fan base will doubtlessly bask in Eat That Question’s hagiographic case for Zappa’s role as pop’s premiere provocateur. (That it entirely leaves out other contenders like Dylan or Lou Reed is another example of the movie’s tunnel vision.) But it’s as rambling as Zappa’s knee-jerk anti-establishment platitudes. For most, Zappa’s black-hole cynicism simply isn’t infectious—it’s draining.
For a documentary about a musician who was contrarian to the core, Eat That Question is the equivalent of M.O.R., AM radio. It’s lifeless and easily digestible in a way Zappa never was.
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Directed by Thorsten Schütte. Opens in Kansas City on August 26, 2016.