When an interviewer in Eat That Question, a new documentary about musician and composer Frank Zappa, asks Zappa if he considers himself a genius, he scoffs at the notion. And yet, Zappa certainly brought something unique to the table with his avant-garde compositions and decidedly bizarre lyrics. The movie, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre, successfully profiles the man and his music by piecing together footage of interviews and performances.
One of the earliest clips features Zappa on The Steve Allen Show in 1963. "This gentleman's name is Frank Zappa and he plays the bicycle," goes the tagline. We then see a clean-cut, well-dressed Zappa lead Allen over to the bicycle he intends to play with a bow and drumsticks. The moment suggests the degree to which Zappa wanted to experiment from the very beginning. Shortly after that appearance, he would join the R&B group the Mothers of Invention and, from that moment onward, the floodgates were open.
A perfectionist when it came to performing, Zappa talks about his zero tolerance for drugs. He didn't care what his musicians did when they weren't on the road with him, but to tour with him and the Mothers meant a commitment to making music at the highest level. Zappa, who would grow his hair long and sprout his now-infamous oversized mustache and soul patch in the late '60s, often functioned more as a conductor than band member, something that's apparent in the live footage included in this film.
As time went on, Zappa became frustrated with the American obsession with commercial success. In Europe, fans flocked to see him play, even though radio stations rarely played his music. In the Czech Republic, for example, fans came by his music by way of bootlegs. After the Velvet Revolution, the Czechs, including President Václav Havel, treated him as a diplomat when he visited the country. The film includes footage of his arrival there in 1990.
Tragically, Zappa was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer in 1990 and died in 1993. In one of his final interviews, which aired on The Today Show in 1993, he appears more subdued but refrains from discussing how he wants to be remembered. "It's not important," he says, adding that the guys who want to be "remembered" spend tons of money making sure people like them, making it clear that, up until the very end, he wanted his music to speak for itself.
Yep, "eat that question" is certainly an appropriate title for this terrific film.