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June 22, 2016


German director Thorsten Schütte’s documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words is sure to appeal to reverent fans and intrigue those who will discover a most unique figure in the history of contemporary music.

The superb guitarist, bandleader and brilliant composer Frank Zappa left us far too early (he died of cancer at the age of 52 in 1993). Fortunately he also left a huge body of work, as well as many interviews, live concert and behind the scenes footage that the movie is entirely based on. A prolific composer, he released 62 albums in his lifetime and was known for his fierce independence and uncompromising attitude towards his musical vision and freedom of expression. Considered provocative and eccentric, his music embraced many different styles – from the avant-garde orchestral, to a hybrid of rock, jazz, doo-wop, R&B, musique concrète, and contemporary classical, rich with absurdist satire and humor. His discovery of the works of Varèse, Stravinsky and Webern had a strong impact on his musical growth, and he in turn, influenced a whole generation of musicians ranging in diversity and style.

While the movie does not give a comprehensive overview of Zappa’s life and music (some key chapters are left out), in 90 minutes it builds an intriguing portrait of an artist in his own words, and covers the major musical eras in his life. There are no talking heads in this film – everything is based on interviews with Zappa and live concert and behind the scenes archival footage. Zappa talks about diverse topics such as censorship: “What do you make of a society that is so primitive that it clings to the belief that certain words in its language are so powerful that they could corrupt you the moment you hear them?”.  In regards to his distrust of the music industry and labels, he says: “I do my music for people who love music. Most of what the music business does is not musical. It is designed to create product.” When asked about his compositions, he responds that they should all be looked at as one composition. With a twinkle in those intelligent eyes, he sums up his music as “Anything, any place, any time, for no reason at all!” – pointing to his desire for the freest expression of musical ideas.  Live concert footage include playing with his band The Mothers of Invention, working with The London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Kent Nagano, to himself conducting his own work. When asked about leading his band, he refers to himself as “a referee in a sports match” whose job is to create balance.

It took eight years for the movie to come together, starting with the first vain attempts to connect with Zappa’s wife Gail, to the gathering of material and the lengthy task of editing. Following Zappa from a clean-shaven youth in a suit, to his final productive days where the fatigue can be detected in his stoic face, the focus is mainly on Zappa’s straightforward and entertaining interactions with the media: there are some priceless footage of The Tonight Show host Steve Allen joining in on an improvised piece for two bicycles, interviews with a Pennsylvania State Trooper fan in full uniform, meeting with Czech President Václav Havel, and many astute observations and socio-political commentary by the multi-faceted artist. But the most memorable quote in the movie is when he responds to how he wishes to be remembered: “It is not important to be remembered.” That’s Zappa’s unapologetic adherence to his own truth and a reflection on the importance of being fully present in our existence and remaining true to ourselves without thinking of posterity. Because wouldn’t it be fair to say that the moment we become attached to how we would like to be remembered, we modify our behavior and speech in order to fit that image we want people to remember us by, thus compromising our truth and honesty.

Thorsten Schütte sums up Zappa’s true legacy beyond his music in his director’s note when he writes: “The life and art of Frank Zappa connects to universal questions that so many can relate to. How can an artist stay true to his art and ideas? How does one handle rejection and the limitations of a creative output? And what is the ultimate price to pay for the freedom of expression?”

Eat That Question – Frank Zappa In His Own Words opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, June 24, 2016.


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