Wit, provocateur, satirist and social gadfly — “I’m famous,” Frank Zappa liked to say, “but most people don’t know what I do.”
He made his living as a performer and band-leader of the Mothers of Invention, conjuring up dissonant orchestrations, and hilariously catchy and often off-color ditties about not eating “Yellow Snow,” a “Valley Girl,” a “Disco Boy” or “Dinah Moe Humm.”
Zappa’s fame was built on controversies, public appearances, against-the-grain social and political stances and interviews. Nobody gave interview like Frank.
That’s how Thorsten Schutte (Zappa would LOVE that name) built his film, “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words.” It’s a documentary concocted out of decades of film and TV interviews — some confrontational, some awkward, often quite funny.
Because Zappa’s real gift might have been comedy. His bemused cynicism burst through his lyrics and permeated his public persona. He could turn to the camera and deadpan a bigger laugh than most stand-ups. And so he does, early and often, in this 90 minute celebration of his life and music.
It’s not all laughs. There was his battle with those — Tipper Gore, et al — who wanted age-appropriate ratings on records, prompting a funny exchange in a Congressional committee hearing. The Royal Albert Hall tried to cancel a symphonic multi-media show once they realized he’d be showing nude images and himself flipping the bird in film footage projected on stage. And we see his last TV interview, dying of cancer, not quite defiant, but snarky to the end.
Schutte creates a public picture of the man, who could play the music snob with the best of them, a musician Above It All, especially that sell-out pop music thing.
But here he is, on “The Mike Douglas Show,” on “What’s My Line?”, shilling and selling.
“Who you jivin’ with all that cosmic debris?”
He was always good for a laugh, Mephistophelian goatee, lustful leer and all. That was obvious from the start, his first national exposure, on Steve Allen’s show. He’d written music for two bicycles, recorded electronic noises and improvised big band blurts. He was young, clean-shaven and wearing a suit. But the sarcasm, the wink-at-the-audience drollery at putting on the show’s host? Vintage Frank. Just two composer/polymaths ribbing each other — a hoot.
The film is a celebration, so even though we catch him on stage at his most sexist (“Dinah Moe Humm”) and borderline homophobic (“Bobby Brown Goes Down”), that corner of his reputation is not explored. The sexually compliant females which he inserted into his songs, joking about rape (in character), the British talk show in which he praised groupies for delivering “the ultimate gesture of worship — human sacrifice”, the man could certainly provoke.
His defense, that it was all in the name of satire (more like Randy Newman’s “Short People” than Andrew Dice Clay’s “in character” stage act) rings true but a little hollow. His body of work points to a tolerant gadfly ahead of his time in a lot of attitudes and stances. Maybe not that far ahead, though.
But “Eat That Question” captures him at his most articulate, most colorful and most playful, an entertainer who lived his life performing one long, droll eye-roll at music, musicians and the “plastic people” who consume it.
MPAA Rating: R (nudity, profanity)
Cast: Frank Zappa, Steve Allen, Katie Couric, many others
Credits: Directed by Thorsten Schutte. A Sony Pictures Classics release.
Running time: 1:30