Monday, August 15, 2016

ZAPPA SPEAKS: a review of "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words"

Directed by Thorsten Schutte
**** (four stars)

My worldview was unquestionably challenged and therefore, assisted in its shaping by the inscrutable, uncompromising, ever questioning, satirical, unrepentant mind and music of Frank Zappa.

For a figure who was rarely to never heard upon the commercial radio airwaves, even in the big metropolitan, cosmopolitan city of Chicago, I did, however, possess a knowledge of his existence and I also already and mistakenly carried a perception of who such a figure could possibly be. As a child and growing into early adolescence, I had not heard even one note of Zappa's music but his visage was instantly recognizable. That Mephistophelean mustache, goatee and eyebrows. The threatening elongation of his hawk's nose. The seemingly endless rat's nest of what I assumed to be dirty, greasy, unwashed hair. He just looked like the sinister man in the raincoat you wished that you'd never see in public for fear of what May happen to you. And couple those images and thoughts with the reputation that Frank Zappa was the man responsible for a legion of "dirty songs" and unlistenable music, designed to taint and corrupt a nation's worth of susceptible young people. Look your doors for fear and influence of this sort should find its way over the threshold.

By high school I was proven wrong.

In 1985, I was 16 years old and as a music fanatic with slowly broadening listening horizons, I was indeed fascinated and angered by the actions of the Parents Music Resource Center, forever known as the PMRC, and partially led by Tipper Gore and Susan Baker, wives of Al Gore and James Baker, respectively. While I could concede that parents had every right to know what their children may be listening and finding themselves being exposed to, I was vehemently against the idea that a roomful of housewives could decide for me what was indecent or not--decisions I felt that I was perfectly able to make for myself.

Enter Frank Zappa once again and this time, I found myself more than curious as to his involvement with this building controversy and his testimonies to the United States Senate against the PMRC. The first thing, again, was the image of Zappa himself. The iconic facial hair remained but his dress and appearance otherwise was conservative. Clean and pressed suit and tie and even his hair was of shorter length. But, you know about wolves in sheep clothing...

Anyhow, I watched the news reports and once Zappa opened his mouth and began to speak in his baritone voice, I was struck dumb by the eloquence, articulateness and severe pointedness of his testimony, which not only confirmed that all of my prejudices about the man were entirely wrong, they were fully media created and driven, and furthermore, he seemed to be on my side. Once I was able to hear the man himself, unfiltered and in the United States Senate no less, whatever I had feared, more or less melted away, opening a door that I had previously never felt that I would walk through let alone even regard.

In the 23 years since his death from pancreatic cancer in 1993, I have been more than curious as to the public's knowledge of Frank Zappa, from his music to even beyond his persona. Frankly (ahem), I feel that as a society, we are more in need of his words and music at this time in our nation's history, a viewpoint that was firmly designed to shed light upon all of the idiosyncrasies of the world and to cut down all fools and falsifiers with venomous, passionate relish.

"Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words," a new documentary from Director Thorsten Schutte, is a perfect primer into the mind, music and worldview of the eccentric and peerless musical genius. Briskly paced and meticulously researched and edited, Schutte has created a pastiche of interviews performed with Zappa from a variety of sources and interspersed with live concert footage, all of which will challenge any pre-conceived notions one may have had about the man and for longtime fans, Schutte's film is a deeply affectionate and reverential but not fawning portrait of the man who said before his passing that he had no interests in necessarily being remembered.

For here is a point where I wholly disagree with Zappa: he definitely needs to be remembered, for his stance as a social/cultural/political provocateur as well as being a composer/bandleader/musician of the highest order demands that we  open our minds just enough to even try anything that he offered to us when he was with us on this mortal coil. Now that he is gone, his music and words have remained behind and powerfully so, giving Schutte the opportunity to carry that Zappa torch in Zappa's stead. Not only has he delivered a film that is first rate, you just may be surprised by your own reactions to Frank Zappa's worldview, which has remained as up to the minute as the latest breaking news story. I urge you to catch this film while you are able.

Thorsten Schutte's "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words," is a 90 minute and mostly chronological journey through Frank Zappa's time as a media figure, partaking in a collection of interviews, a process which he felt to be completely unnatural and just two steps away from the Inquisition. Before returning to the words, please allow me to just delve into the music for a moment, especially as the film features a significant amount of concert footage starring a seriously bemused Zappa and his inimitable Mothers Of Invention.

For those of you who may be completely unfamiliar with the music of Frank Zappa, yes, there is a large amount of material that does indeed contain scatological material to varying degrees of excessiveness and those aforementioned "dirty words." But, beyond the words, which depending upon the listener will enliven or disgust or in many cases, perform both feats and even more, there is indeed the actual music itself which is unquestionably indescribable due to Zappa's tendency and ability to allow his creative imagination and his overall sense of inspiration to fly freely and unfiltered, blasting through any and all boundaries thus creating a musical language that is entirely his own.

Zappa's music is as demanding and difficult as it is hysterical, playful and downright stunning. It is music where any conceivable sound can become part of the composition itself, from the standard instrumentation, to atonal sounds and noises, to dialogue and vocal ticks, yowls, shrieks and whatever else Zappa felt each particular selection needed. In one of the film's interviews, Zappa explains that in many ways, the massive amount of material he has written, recorded and released essentially could be viewed as one long song, with themes and concepts that echo each other and repeat and return over time.

With all of that taken into account, the same description could be attributed to Zappa's interview process. With Schuette's deft presentation of this large amount of archived material, we could almost view Frank Zappa's decades of interviews as being one long conversation with themes and subject matter on which he speaks of art, inspirations, beauty and ugliness, his lack of drug usage, fully independent thinking, as well as his social and political viewpoints upon censorship, religion, and his role and perception as a counter culture figure, a figure and message he sharply reasons has been marginalized in the primary pop culture conversation, especially upon the radio, solely due to his appearance. Which is a shame, because just as I realized when I was a teenager watching him testify to the Senate on television, Frank Zappa was a man of a uniquely spirited, brilliant mind which was displayed through the power of his expressive spoken language (as well as his musical one), which was often far ahead of the curve, especially to those who would choose to unwisely challenge him.

Often as I watched Schuette's film, I thought to myself of how much we could use a figure like Frank Zappa right now in our collective history in the United States, especially during our particularly horrific election cycle. But then, I figured that perhaps we wouldn't need him to weigh in right now because as you regard the interview footage within Schuette's film, what could Zappa say today that he hadn't already said and expressed over his nearly 40 year career?

Just watch him, in early footage as a clean cut, unshaven young iconoclast demonstrating his bicycle playing skills with Steve Allen to the poignant footage taken from one of his final interviews before his passing, Zappa's words and messages remain consistent and depending upon the context of each interview, he would offer more or less to elaborate or infuriate,but all to challenge and provoke the thought process of anyone who chose to listen to whatever he had to express. Regarding how an discernible element could figure into one of Zappa's musical compositions, I wish for you to regard Zappa's body language and especially, his eyes during all of the interviews contained within "Eat That Question," for they are as telling and as informing as the words themselves.

Through his visage and frame, you can easily view when Zappa was clearly enjoying the interview conversation or when he was profusely irritated and even angered. When the person with whom he was having the conversation was honestly engaged or simply there to pick a fight with him and already had their minds made up. In every situation, Frank Zappa is easily viewed to be very much as a prize fighter, intellectually sizing up his opponent, deciding if they were either friend or foe, and if it was indeed a foe, Zappa was merciless.

Even moreso, was his ability to appear prophetic as his understanding of the American social/political structure in comparison to those outside of the U.S., and filtered through each location's relationships to their own history and culture, was particularly prescient. Over and again throughout Scuette's film, we see and hear Zappa speaking of the increasing conservatism of America as presented through a political prism overtaken by Evangelicalism. While he was indeed speaking of the 1960's, 1970's, 1980's and 1990's, he could just as easy be speaking of the United States right now in 2016, where our American culture has grown more intolerant, overtly racist, sexist, homophobic and ultimately, fascistic. To have a sense of what he woud say today, all one has to do, is find one of his albums or at this time, just venture out and see "Eat That Question." All one needs to  have is an open mind to try and give another viewpoint a chance to be heard, possibly taking his ideas (or even warnings) to potentially spark other ideas within any and all of us.

Thorsten Schuette's "Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words" is a completely entertaining and revelatory documentary that I feel would not only immensely please Zappa fans but even moreso, fully surprise those who were unfamiliar with him, aside from his legendary mercurial and nasty reputation. Sometimes, it is in the most unlikely sources form where we can discover a new way of looking at things incredibly familiar. Frank Zappa was undeniably a figure of that very sort, vehemently refusing to accept the status quo as he blazed his own path entirely upon his terms.

In our over-crowded movie season, filled to the brim with all things conforming to the worst excesses of mediocrity, I wish for you to throw all of the sequels, reboots and so on aside to find Schuette's lovingly presented and excellent film if it happens to be playing within your city. If it is, act quickly and go see it, for this is precisely the type of excellent motion picture with which you too can refuse to accept the status quo and engage in a conversation with a deeply idiosyncratic mind.