Director: Thorsten Schütte
“To many people Zappa has often seemed to be a force of cultural darkness. Bearded and gross and filthy, entirely obscene, a Mephistophelian figure, serving as a lone, brutal reminder of music’s potential for invoking chaos and destruction”. Those words, originally from Time Magazine, October, 1969 are intoned by an impossibly square TV frontman over footage of Frank walking through an Australian airport. Looking startlingly leonine and quite magnificent, all eyes are on him. There follows an uncomfortable 1973 discussion on Aussie TV about groupies with Zappa the only one in the room with anything remotely interesting to say.
Eat That Question premiered on June 24, 2016 in the US and barely three weeks later here it is on the big screen at the Perth International Film Festival. Such is the speed of mass media communication today. This movie is sub-titled “Zappa in His Own Words” and that’s exactly what we have here – no narrator, no talking heads and no celebrity contributors, just 90 mins of rare FZ concert and interview footage.
Starting with a bizarrely short-haired and be-suited Frank playing the bicycle on the Steve Allan TV show in March 1963, Eat That Question proceeds chronologically through the career of one of the most culturally important American musicians of the 20th century. Here, via some precious black and white footage we see the original Mothers (FZ, Roy Estrada, Jimmy Carl Black, Art Tripp, Ian Underwood, Don Preston, Bunk Gardner and Motorhead Sherwood) onstage circa 1967 in all their ugly glory. Always a freak, never a hippy, Zappa was no one’s fool and one of many highlights shows him facing down some left-wing agitators at a October 1968 Berlin concert. The show ended in a near riot and the back cover of the 1969 LP Mothermania contains a newspaper article (in German) telling the full story.
The 200 Motels movie and the subsequent Albert Hall concert ban receives full coverage, before we’re into the Overnite Sensation/Apostrophe era, via some wonderful Scandinavian live footage of the Jean-Luc Ponty Mothers line-up. The late 70s/80s concert material is more familiar, but this is interspersed with some interesting news footage of Frank taking on the Tipper Gore and the PMRC, receiving a Beatlemania-style welcome in Prague and patiently explaining his then-state of the art and unfeasibly complex Synclavier system on US breakfast TV. It’s all great stuff and Zappa handles it with customary biting wit and more than a touch of sarcasm.
Frank’s final years are handled quickly and tastefully, but one of his final interviews from 1992/93 is sad and painful to watch. By then the now fully-bearded Zappa was very ill, but still had a twinkle in his eye and as always, fired off a few one-liners.
I’ve been a Zappa follower since 1968 and thought I’d seen and heard it all, but there is footage here I’ve never encountered before, certainly not in this quality. Eat That Question is an embarrassment of riches for the casual fan and even the most concert-hardened FZ aficionado will find much to enjoy here.
As someone once said: I urge you to see this film
Might appeal to people who enjoyed:
200 Motels (not many of them, I know), The Dub Room Special, Baby Snakes, A Token Of His Extreme, The Torture Never Stops or any of the other Zappa films.