On June 24, German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte’s new doc was released in New York and Los Angeles, a few months after it debuted to rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival. As is the case with most documentaries, his film was years in the making. Schütte first contacted the subject’s widow, Gail Zappa, in 2008, urging her to support his endeavor to share the vision of her husband with the world. Frank Zappa, who passed away in 1993 at 52, has gone down in history as one the strangest musicians of his generation, but more than anything Schütte wanted to portray Zappa as the brilliant composer he’d always admired. The result is the 90-minute non-narrated film, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, composed entirely of original interview footage, media coverage, and archival performances spanning his 25-year career. Despite Gail’s unfortunate passing in October at the age of 70, and plenty of internal drama within the Zappa family, in the promotion of the film their children joined the director to help bestow the wisdom, articulate reasoning, and the abstract beauty of the prolific composer’s legacy.
Schütte’s initial goal was to present the film as if its viewers are sitting down for a conversation with Zappa. The decision to make the film devoid of narration was deliberate, albeit challenging. While sifting through countless hours of archival, the director decided the best way to honor the time Zappa spent talking to others was to simply let him do all the talking himself. In the edit he was able to construct a specific narrative using Zappa’s moods, expressions, and gestures, to give insight into the chronology of his career. By breaking tradition and avoiding the usual routines of documentary filmmaking, like fast-paced editing and talking head interviews, he utilized television, radio clips, images, and more to present Zappa at his rawest.
Schütte’s storytelling choice was ultimately one Zappa’s daughter, Moon Unit, agreed with. “There’s an intimacy that the viewer encounters when it’s not watered down through another person’s filter,” says 48-year-old. “It’s so immediate.”
Her brother, who felt a bit out-of-the-loop, shares the same sentiment. “I had nothing to do with the film,” says Dweezil Zappa, 46. “I didn’t even know the film existed until a couple of months ago, there’s no real communication between the Zappa Family Trust to my sister Moon and I. That being said, it’s a great film. It’s a rare opportunity for people to feel like they’re sitting in a room and talking to my dad.”
Schütte’s reconstruction of the source materials were his way of taking the pre-recorded visuals and making them into a subjective look into Zappa’s life. His interpretation and stylistic approach was often in the vein of Zappa’s own charm. He opted to forego the use of stock B-roll footage of Vietnam, the Women’s Liberation Movement, and televangelism. He didn’t use graphics or captions either, you won’t see “Stockholm ’67” or “Berlin ’68” crawl across the screen.
“We realized, no damnit, we leave it to the audience,” Schütte explains. “Those who grew up with it will know. Others will orient themselves or get curious, it’s right to leave a certain mystery to something and not take everybody by the hand.” Turning to Moon, Schütte adds: “It’s like your father always said, we need to respect the audience, they can think for themselves.”
Thinking for yourself is important to Schütte, who was excited yet intimidated ahead of going into production. The film itself starts off with a clip of Zappa claiming that the concept of the interview is the “most abnormal thing ever,” and that no one really understands the real him. At the end of the film, Zappa concludes that he doesn’t want to be remembered. “Those are two moments as a filmmaker, where I go, ‘Why the fuck am I making this?’” Schütte laughs. “It’s so difficult, but there is so much to be explored between those two statements.”
And that’s an understatement. The vastness and depth of Zappa’s career as a creative visionary would be impossible to encapsulate into any single film. For decades, he continued to push his creative boundaries in the audio and visual realms, consequently he’s insinuated himself throughout the history books of rock’n’roll. His public persona and attitude, often misunderstood, was one of historic rarity: think what George Carlin meant to comedy as an unadulterated ballbuster who was sick of dealing with “the man.” Zappa fans range from hardcore audiophiles, those obsessed with his engaging and atypical compositions, to casual listeners who are enthralled by his silly lyrics. As for accolades, he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame two years after his death. Two years after that, the Grammys gave Zappa the “Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award,” which he shares with the likes of Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald, and a killer cast of musical icons. Posthumously, he’s continued to honored by the likes of Rolling Stone as a cross-genre pioneer. But a mile-long list or history lesson of his success and subsequent acclaim isn’t the story that Eat That Question works to tell. It’s more of a character-study.
The film paints Zappa as a man who both overtly and subtly excels in biting social commentary. He’s seen as anti-establishment, anti-commercialization, a warrior against censorship. But more than anything, Eat That Question portrays Zappa as a man and as a musician. While many know him for his subversive nature, his wacky portrayal in the media, and his ridiculous and surreal lyrics, Schütte set out to show a side of the musician that many may not know existed.
“Many label him as a guitar god or rock star, but he looked at himself as a composer,” Schütte says. “I look at him as one of the most significant composers of the 20th century.” In Eat That Question… Zappa not only speaks articulately about his worldviews, but he’s also depicted as a dedicated workhorse, obsessed with accuracy, timing, and continually enriching his variety of sounds and techniques. For all the silliness and low-key trolling of lame news reporters, we see an incredibly detail-oriented man—shirtless with a cigarette dangling from his lips—using a razor blade to cut sections of sheet music and work on his arrangements. A conductor of onstage mayhem, Zappa wasn’t a drug user, and condemned members of his band from using on the road. In one interview, he confirms he’s never done acid, or had any “cosmic revelations” from drugs. Working at a breakneck pace, he had no time for that bullshit anyway; in some years he’d put out as many as five albums and at the end of his life, he considered a nine-hour workday as a limitation.
Perhaps it is his foresight, as Dweezil cited, that made it possible to fuse Zappa’s sophisticated compositions with elements of the absurd. But don’t let him fool you: when blabbing about “tinselcock!” or “hot broth,” he was merely exercising his muscles. For Zappa, language was one of his biggest tools. In Eat That Question, he refutes the concept of “dirty words,” saying the power assigned to words comes from religion or the government, that we’re all just being duped.
“He loved language,” says Moon, referencing her brother being named after his mother’s toenail. “It’s like a carpenter knowing their tools.” Schütte agrees, bringing up how Frank was inspired by a TV commercial to create “Saint Alphonzo’s Pancake Breakfast,” not to mention his fixation on the German and Dutch languages, and his playful use of onomatopoeia in songs like “Stick It Out.” He adds: “As with sounds or instruments, he was equally explorative with language and visuals.”
Beyond his lyrics, when faced with the barrel or the lens, language was just as instrumental in Zappa’s expression of self. “There’s a consciousness that he had,” Dweezil notes of his father’s interviews. “It’s a certain ability to vet a situation and provide social commentary that was crystal clear in its communication, but he didn’t have to spend any time to conjure up his opinion. It was automatic, that awareness is so rare, not a lot of people are tuned into that wavelength.”
The energy in the room during a Frank Zappa interview must’ve been astounding. “He had this sort of weird subversive upper hand,” Dweezil says laughing. “He was never doing an interview out of any publicity desperation, so he wasn’t in the mindset of making people happy just to get on the air. It was more like, ‘What the fuck do you want?!’”
Even when he appeared to be dissatisfied with an interviewer, Zappa remained cool and respectful. After all, he was a reasonable, astute guy. He also had an uncanny memory; he was the type of guy who could look at a list of tapes in a vault, read the city and year off a label, and then recite the venue’s details and acoustics. “He would probably remember every single interview,” Dweezil says. “He’d be able to laugh at reliving some of those uncomfortable things.”
Although Zappa was an intellectual, he wasn’t cocky. “While he knew he was a master at what he did, he had a very self-deprecating sense of humor,” Dweezil says. “He was never interested in having people swoon over what he was doing.” He wasn’t comfortable with the concept of celebrity either, once saying, “I’m famous, but most people don’t know what I do. That’s commercial success.”
But even though Zappa was humble, he could only take crap to a certain point. “He was a very fair evaluator of circumstances,” Dweezil says. “But once you cross the line, you’re shark bait. He’s gonna give you the benefit of the doubt, until you fuck it up. But he’s very respectful to people who take their jobs seriously, regardless what they did.”
The profound respect he had for professionalism was exponentially greater for musicians and artists. “If there was a guy playing the piano in a hotel and he thought he was good, he’d go over and compliment him,” Dweezil says. “He knew how hard it was to be a musician.” In a featured interview, Frank dismissed the concept that it was common to make a living in the US as a composer and that unless you’re under the rule of Coca-Cola, musicians were viewed as scumbags. He resented the fact that America put a low-value on art, saying, “America thinks it’s hot shit. We are stupid. Internationally, we are culturally nothing.” It didn’t matter that we have Levis, hamburgers, poison gas and the neutron bomb; none of that stuff meant anything to him. “Countries shouldn’t exist if they can’t sustain culture,” he said decisively.
It becomes clear throughout the film that the value Zappa put on art lead to his strong stance against censorship on the global scale. In an early clip, one reporter refers to him as a political rebel. He scoffs, “Isn’t it strange the fantasies people have?” In retrospect, it depends how you look at it. He was anti-establishment and anti-theology, and called one-sided political ideologies inherently fascist. He refused to perform for the Pope or the communist party, working hard to avoid the politicization of his music. But as time went on, he took a greater stand against censorship as his career was frequently affected by it: MGM Records censored final cuts of his third album, We’re Only in It for the Money; London’s historic Royal Albert Hall banned one of his 1971 performances for obscenity, which landed him some beef with the Queen.
“It’s about freedom of expression, but it’s also about not having limitations on your creative output,” Schütte says. “It’s going to mutilate your work, if you have a penchant for lascivious lyrics, then you would feel pretty pissed about the fact that people are cutting your wings there.”
“The natural course was then to go to Washington DC,” Moon says. “That was intrinsically him, he was not somebody who was just gonna lay down and take it. And in doing so, he was gonna make sure your rights were protected too.”
By 1985, Zappa would take his beliefs to Congress with Dee Snider and John Denver to take on the regulation of music, and make a laughing-stock of Senator Paula Hawkins while doing so. In this instance, it wasn’t even his music directly under fire, but the tunes of Ozzy Osbourne, The Mentors, Prince, and more. He became arguably the biggest pundit for free speech in modern music, making the talk show rounds and becoming a cultural liaison in Prague. Moon, who often answers questions with questions, follows up, “He did not let fear be an obstacle. But it must of felt so frustrating. What if he’d never been stopped? What if he’d never had those time consuming wasteful moments, he could’ve gone even farther.” It’s tough to imagine that, considering he released 62 albums in his time and posthumously they’ve released another 40. Perhaps it makes sense for someone who created so much to get aggravated at distractions.
“In his lifetime, he was constantly pushing boundaries,” Dweezil says. “That really does wear on you in terms of the extra work you put in trying to get something done. At a certain point, he was frustrated and mentioned taking all of his tapes out to the desert and setting them on fire.”
Although throughout the film you see many sides of Zappa the artist, a portrait of Zappa the family man is underexposed—a decision Schütte mentioned previously. But at the close of the film, you start to see a vulnerable side to Zappa. It begins with a brief nod to his relationship with his family and his time spent away. “We liked him whether he was there or not,” Moon says. “But we would’ve preferred him at home.”
It was only until the end of Frank Zappa’s life that his began to share the quality time they craved, but by then he was suffering from prostate cancer. “We had a tiny Siamese cat,” Moon remembers. “It weighed a pound or two, and at the end of his life, even to have it on his chest was too much. It’s very painful to watch those last moments. He was so ill. It’s devastating, I’m tearing up now just thinking about it.”
Certainly Eat That Question’s emotional pinnacle is Zappa’s 1993 interview with the Today Show, where he sat, smoked his cigarette, and admitted that he’s was not doing well. It’s uncomfortable footage, but Zappa still retains that same glimmer of self-assurance. “Most people are not necessarily put into a position to be in the public eye,” says Dweezil. “By the nature of people saying it could very well be his last interview, he was very aware of that stuff. It’s upsetting to watch, but he had no regrets with how he lived his life. And life is just a matter of reacting to circumstances, and he was always able to adapt, but at that point his body wasn’t gonna allow him to anymore. That’s part of everybody’s life at some point, but not everybody is gonna get interviewed about it.”
When asked at the time how he wanted to be remembered, Zappa replied, “It’s not important to even be remembered. The people who worry about being remembered are guys like Reagan, Bush… they’ll spend a lot of money and do a lot of work to make sure that remembrance is just terrific.” The reporter followed up, “And for Frank Zappa?” To which he replied, “I don’t care.”
“You have to understand that in the situation he was asked, he was ill and had other concerns,” Schütte says. “But he was also somebody living very in the present. He’s not going to gain anything after he’s dead; he’s not going to listen to his own music any longer. He was a very practical man. Then the grain of salt comes in, where, if you look at the dedication he put into preservation and taking care of his records, and that he himself profited a great deal from his heroes, Igor Stravinsky and Karlheinz Stockhausen, he was aware that his music would live on.”
It’s a sentiment Dweezil, who continues to perform his songs in hopes of sharing his father’s work, clearly shares. “To a certain degree, I don’t accept that answer from him, that’s why I continue to play his music,” Dweezil says. “I would like for people to discover his music, I don’t want it to just disappear. It’s not because it’s a money machine, it’s because I’m a huge admirer of what he did. He talked about what culture and what is important to carry on. It’s not a pair of designer jeans; it’s the creativity of someone’s mind. To me, that’s worth preserving.”
It only seems appropriate that his final goodbye interview also served as a final fuck you to the conservative politicians, with a borderline nihilistic, or existential hat-tip to boot. It was going out in true Zappa fashion. And Moon continues to see that as his parting gift. “His last generous act was to remind us to stay the course of what really matters,” Moon says. “He’s giving one last plea to the American individual to wake up to the politics of what’s going on around them, their own contributions, and how much control they want to have over their own lives. It’s an invitation to live while living.”
Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words is in theaters now.
Derek Scancarelli studied documentary filmmaking in New York. Nerd-out with him on Twitter.