DURING HIS LIFETIME, Frank Zappa was to the press what Donald Trump is now. The journalists of the world knew that if they pointed a camera and a microphone at the hirsute composer/musician, they were going to get some great material.
Director Thorsten Schütte understands that all too well. That’s why his documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words uses nothing but clips from Zappa’s multitude of TV appearances to track his life and career. No talking heads. No hyperbolic narration from a famous fan. Nothing but Zappa being Zappa.
The finished product is like a curated YouTube playlist, as much of the material has already been widely seen and disseminated by Zappa’s fans. The director proves to be a savvy curator, at least: These clips are marvelous, including Zappa’s 1963 appearance on The Steve Allen Show performing an improvised piece for bicycle and electronic sounds, a strange interview conducted by a Pennsylvania state trooper, and his final conversation on NBC News mere months before his passing in 1993.
Throughout, Eat That Question emphasizes Zappa’s hard line about the power of music and the dangers of censorship (including his ballyhooed appearance on Capitol Hill arguing against the Parents Music Resource Center), but there’s equal time devoted to his impressive artistic evolution. And the interviews are broken up by performances of Zappa’s days leading the Mothers of Invention, and his later years when he was presenting his fierce and modern classical compositions to rabid European audiences.
Something else Zappa shares with Trump is how polarizing he is: You’re either a fan or a hater. This well-thought-out documentary might actually go some way toward getting the latter group to at least appreciate what the artist stood for and accomplished during his life—even if it means suffering through the music sections.