Frank Zappa Documentary: Why His Words and Music Still Resonate

Frank Zappa documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words
Frank Zappa documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

Frank Zappa Documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

If ever the world needed an iconoclast with a sense of humor now might be that time.

The documentary “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” reminds us why Zappa’s commentary and music still resonate while taking a deeper look at a complicated and uncompromising musician many may only know from the 80s single “Valley Girl.”

“The best thing about the movie is that it really is Frank in his own words,” his son Dweezil Zappa told Made in Hollywood at the movie’s Los Angeles premiere on June 13, “You get to see how he thought about making music but also his views of the world and how that filtered into his music.”

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words Features Interviews and TV Appearances

Acquired by Sony Pictures Classics at the Sundance Film Festival, where the movie was a hit with audiences, “Eat That Question,” which opens June 24, is built around his comments from decades of interviews and television appearances. This includes a clip of a clean-cut, impossibly young-looking Zappa on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1963 during which he performs avant guard music using bicycles as instruments. “I congratulate you for your far-sightedness,” Allen says. “As for your music, don’t ever do it around here again.”

That would become a theme for  the movie, as it was for Zappa’s life. He was fascinating and admired, even if people were often left confused by his artistic output. Along with his band The Mothers of Invention, Zappa’s music defied easy categorization. He blended jazz, classical, pop and experimental music, but was often described as a “rock star,” with his wild hair and trademark mustache and great skill with the electric guitar.

“He is a totally self-actualized, self-taught musician and a one-of-a-kind, really,” son Ahmet Zappa says. “A truly, truly unique individual.”

Dweezil and sister Moon Unit Zappa at the June 13, 2016, premiere of Eat that Question
Dweezil and sister Moon Unit Zappa at the June 13, 2016, premiere of Eat that Question

One constant was his refusal to compromise or sell out. “If you think ‘Will this make money?’, that’s not an artistic decision,” he says in an interview shown in the documentary. “That’s a business decision.”

“What’s amazing about this film,” says his daughter Moon Unit, “is the very human story about someone pursuing their artistic calling and the dedication and stamina required to see a dream through — or attempt it.”

Zappa recorded his most successful song with Moon Unit, 1982’s “Valley Girl,” a satire of vapidity featuring Moon’s improvised string of Valspeak expressions like “fer sure, fer sure” and “gag me with a spoon.” The song hit 31 on the Billboard chart, but Zappa refused to perform it live because he feared it had pegged him as a novelty song maker.

Most of his music dealt with weightier subjects, commenting on societal norms, politics, religion and education.”He was like a rock ‘n’ roll Nostradamus,” says Dweezil. “He had songs that still have resonance to today’s social, political climate.”

Frank Zappa Documentary Shows the Many Sides of Iconoclastic Musician

He also was a fierce defender of free speech, famously testifying  in 1985 before a Senate committee considering the Parents Music Resource Center’s call for a voluntary labelling of records with what the group called explicit content harmful to children.

Reading from prepared remarks, Zappa told the committee: “The PMRC demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.”

But as with his music, Zappa could be difficult to pigeonhole. Though he lived the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle with touring and groupies, he shunned drugs and alcohol.

“People expected that he’s got to be this wild and crazy guy, but he was actually pretty conservative because he was always working, he was very structured in terms of what he needed to do and how he needed to do it,” says Dweezil. “So that was a great lesson to learn: that the more you care about what you you do, that’s where the integrity is.”

For his four children, “Eat that Question” represents more than a documentary on a famous man: It’s the story of their dad. Zappa died in 1993 at age 52 from prostate cancer.

“It’s still really emotional, really difficult to watch,” says Diva, “because I miss him tremendously to this day.”