In the days before the internet, there was no getting around the power of the media to shape the world's understanding of public figures. Artists had a direct link to audiences through their work, but television, newspapers and other forms of mass communication built the public personas that today's celebrities carefully control through social media.
The power of traditional media was especially true for iconoclastic and notoriously difficult-to-pin-down artist Frank Zappa. A rock 'n' roll pioneer, innovative classical music composer and gleeful purveyor of experimental sounds and structures years before that approach took root elsewhere, Zappa was a true original. But his penchant for sexually explicit lyrics — always presented in service of sharp social satire — along with his outspoken nature and striking, hippie-era physical presence earned him a reputation that Zappa himself summarized as "a maniac."
The truth about Zappa, as seen in German filmmaker Thorsten Schutte's documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, is both more complicated and more interesting. A family man and workaholic who fired bandmembers for using drugs while on tour, Zappa focused on creating entirely original music inspired by his perceptions of a hopelessly empty and frivolous American culture. Throughout his 27-year career (Zappa died from prostate cancer in 1993), he subjected himself to countless television interviews in apparent hopes of both countering his media image and delivering thoughtful, unfiltered social commentary.
Those interviews serve as primary source material for Eat That Question. The film consists solely of archival footage of Zappa, including concerts and behind-the-scenes material in addition to many little-seen TV appearances. There are no modern-day talking heads to analyze Zappa's artistic output or friends and family to share their memories. The result is less a comprehensive overview of the artist's life and work than an unadorned and revealing self-portrait. Eat That Question might have been subtitled "Zappa's Revenge."
Schutte's well-constructed film organizes material in roughly chronological order but crisscrosses the decades to enrich a subtopic or follow one of Zappa's speeding trains of thought. It's freewheeling enough to mirror the collage effect found in much of Zappa's music.
Early on, the film treats us to the shorthaired, suit-wearing avant-garde composer of 1963, inducing talkshow host Steve Allen to join him on a piece performed with drumsticks and violin bow on two overturned bicycles, accompanied by random electronic noise and a bewildered TV studio band. Zappa's trademark fearlessness took hold right from the start.
The film moves through the warped psychedelia of Zappa's band The Mothers of Invention to satirical rock and jazz-inflected experimentation in the 1970s and '80s and compositions for orchestra during the last few years of his life. Zappa issued a remarkable 62 albums in 27 years, an output nearly matched by posthumous releases of new material culled from the vaults. The film necessarily leaves the impression that it's merely skimming the surface of such a huge body of work. As Zappa liked to point out, it's always been up to individual listeners to move beyond the hype and explore his music firsthand.
In a final interview for The Today Show, Zappa opens up about his deteriorating health and is confronted with a question about how he'd like to be remembered. He's obviously sincere when he says it doesn't matter to him at all. But remembering is a task best handled by Zappa's still-growing legion of fans — and one made easy by Eat That Question.