“Being interviewed is the most abnormal thing you can do to somebody else,” Frank Zappa says in an early clip from Thorsten Schütte’s new documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. The famously irreverent composer and rock musician certainly had a penchant for the abnormal, which may explain why he submitted himself to what seems — in Schütte’s film, at least — like an unrelenting avalanche of interviews over the course of his roughly 40-year career.
These conversations have been edited together in a roughly linear fashion to form Eat That Question’s skeleton of a narrative, which traces Zappa’s origins as a gauche but harmless provocateur (in one of the film’s earliest clips, he plays a modified bicycle on a freak show-style episode of The Steve Allen Show) to his coming of age as a global icon of iconoclasm. By the time the film’s 93 minutes have concluded, we have established a peculiar kind of intimacy with Zappa. We know his various conversational tics, the way he couches self-praise in self-effacement (“Give a guy a big nose and some weird hair and he’s capable of anything”), the way his face goes a bit slack-jawed when presented with a stupid question. We’re even familiar with the subtle changes in his facial hair, for whatever that’s worth.
The film’s subtitle seems to promise that this feeling of intimacy is authentic — here is Frank Zappa, in his own words — but is it really? How much can one possibly how to glean about a person from a series of televised interviews, most of them stilted, superficial, and numbingly repetitive? Eat That Question does an incredibly thorough job of summarizing Zappa’s philosophy as a performer and as a person, but it refuses to take any of the risks that Zappa himself embraced so voraciously.
In fact, Schütte has delivered one of the most complacent rock docs in recent memory, one that allows its subject to set the tone and asks no probing questions beyond the handful featured in the interviews themselves. If being interviewed really is as “abnormal” as Zappa says it is, it follows that a collage of interviews might not be the best gateway into a person’s soul. A better method might have included footage of Zappa interacting with his wife and children, or perhaps more clips of him interacting with his bandmates in The Mothers of Invention (none of whom warrant a proper introduction here) or slinking around the set of 200 Motels telling actors what to do and how to behave. But words are most of what we have here, and by Zappa’s own admission, words are not nearly as powerful as some people think they are.
With its exclusive reliance on interviews and archival footage to get its point across, Eat That Question can’t help but recall last year’s Academy Award-winning Amy Winehouse documentary Amy. The comparison does Schütte’s film no favors. Whereas director Asif Kapadia had a trove of cell phone videos, webcam footage, and other 21st-century media to draw upon, Schütte is mostly limited to clips broadcast on television and already available on YouTube. Zappa’s fans and true believers will already be familiar with many of these clips, so the most Eat That Question can offer is fresh context. The fact that it seems to actively avoid contextualizing, then, is a problem.
This is a film that might have benefited from a narrator, or even from some interviews with modern-day critics who have had decades to grasp with Zappa’s legacy. In deferring to Zappa and establishing his perspective as the only one that counts, Schütte avoids the responsibility of actually contending with the thornier parts of his personality, from his flippant misogyny (his quote about groupies offering up their bodies as “human sacrifice” seems to be presented only for laughs) to the hypocrisy inherent in his love-hate relationship with the music business. It would be more respectful to Zappa’s legacy to actually tackle these issues head-on, but that is a task too great for a film that seems more interested in lionizing its subject.
And that’s the real irony of Eat That Question, because Zappa never wanted to be lionized. He’d likely be horrified by the idea of a documentary about him, especially one that implicitly positions him as a kind of iconoclastic hero. The film’s most poignant moment comes in an interview that took place near the end of Zappa’s life. He’s asked how he wants to be remembered, and he responds, “I don’t care.” That doesn’t mean we don’t care, or that we aren’t allowed to care, but this isn’t the film to make us do it.