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Frank Zappa: Never a hippie, always a freak


At the n+1 website, Paul Grimstad reviews the new documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, directed by Thorsten Schütte. Grimstad praises the documentary for painting a nuanced and deeply compelling portrait of an absolutely singular musician who bucked the trends of his time by being weirder and more driven than anybody else. Read an excerpt below or the full review here.

Thorsten Schütte’s documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words (now playing at Film Forum) offers a mesmerizing portrait of Zappa’s art and life. Working entirely with archival footage, without a voiceover or talking heads, Schütte’s film is a fluid mosaic of concert footage, TV appearances, and interview clips, much of them never seen before: Zappa on the Steven Allen show in 1963 “playing” the bicycle; hunched over staff paper notating music in his Laurel Canyon studio in the ’70s; stalking through airports with a Mephistophelian leer; leading staggeringly well rehearsed bands in Europe and the US (“I don’t like to get on stage and slop around,” he says at one point); talking to whoever will listen about the numbing homogeneity of American consumerism. When he shows up in a suit and tie debating Robert Novak on Crossfire, his usual long black hair cropped short, the effect is less the ’60s freak who became a normal adult than an uncompromising individual voice channeled into a different format. Zappa’s anti-drug stance made him an oddity in the rock world, defying the idea, foisted on him by journalists and TV commentators, that someone of such profligate imagination must be on drugs. “They write about me like I’m a maniac,” he says at one point. “I’m not . . . I’m forty years old, I’ve got four kids, a house, and a mortgage.”

Sometime shortly after the Varèse epiphany, Zappa discovered Walter Piston’s Harmony—a standard textbook on music theory—in the local public library: “I went through some of the exercises in there, and I was wondering why a person would really want to devote a lifetime to doing this, because after you complete it you’ll sound like everybody else who used the same rules.” This ad hoc autodidacticism—both a talent for sustained immersion in solitary study and a sense of when to switch gears when something ceases to excite—is behind all of Zappa’s work and made his music impossible to pin down. Over three decades of almost constant composing and recording, he would amass over sixty LPs, running the gamut from early records with his band the Mothers of Invention that helped to create the milieu we think of as the Sixties, to caustic send-ups of that same counterculture, doo-wop pastiche, tape cut-ups, film scores, gonzo cabaret, big-band charts, way out prog, show tunes, music composed entirely on and for the Synclavier digital sampler, full-score orchestral music, and thousands of scabrous, exploratory guitar solos.

Image: Frank Zappa testifying before the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, 1985. Via n+1.