Frank Zappa had one of the most iconic faces in American pop culture. At the zenith of his notoriety in the late Sixties and Seventies, the late rock guitarist/classical music composer/Mother of Invention boasted a wild mane of curly black hair to go with his Van Dyke and his prominent schnozzola. He looked like a lusty Sicilian pirate and scared the hell out of cops, parents, elected officials, and generally everyone who needed scaring in the high period of hippiedom. When he sang “My Guitar Wants to Kill Your Mama,” people took him at his word.
But it was his intricate, percussive music that defined Zappa, not his appearance. This “professional freak” also gave articulate, acerbic interviews — a rarity for rock stars then and now. Zappa was a supremely sophisticated artist in a field not usually known for its hard chops. German filmmaker Thorsten Schütte, director of Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, understands that, and Schütte’s comprehensive, performance-filled documentary is the biographical profile Zappa deserves.
With cooperation from the Zappa Family Trust and an archive of rare concert footage scrounged from all over Europe and the US, Schütte pastes up Zappa’s career as a series of gigs — some baffling, some brilliant (the onstage version of “Dinah Moe Humm” is especially dramatic), but all wholly “other.” We get to see the hilarious 1963 TV guest shot on The Steve Allen Show, with Zappa earnestly creating musique concrète on bicycle parts. And Zappa’s guitar virtuosity with the original Mothers of Invention, a group of serious, but weird, LA studio musicians. Also, the time a surly group of German leftists disrupted a Mothers show in Berlin. Even though Zappa claimed inspiration from such modernist composers as Edgard Varèse, Igor Stravinsky, and Anton Webern, squares objected to his scruffy disruptiveness — such as the Royal Albert Hall concert cancellation on grounds of “obscenity.” In his defense, he offered only dry, sardonic explanations, à la: “Most rock journalism is people who can’t write, interviewing people who can’t talk, for people who can’t read.”
In the years before his death from prostate cancer in 1993, Zappa sold out European concert halls for full orchestral performances of his classical pieces, and even planned a “Popestock” music festival at the Vatican (never happened). But basically he was still the guy who wrote “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” and “G-Spot Tornado.” See Eat That Question and get to know Frank Zappa.