“The thing that sets the Americans apart from the rest of the cultures in the world is we’re so fucking stupid,” Frank Zappa declares during the documentary, “Eat That Question.” He adds, “This country has been around for a couple of hundred years, and we think we are hot shit. And they don’t even realize that other countries have thousands of years of history and culture, and they are proud of it.”
Zappa continues, “When we deal on an international level, with foreign policy, and we try going in as this big American strong country, they must laugh up their sleeves at us because we are nothing. We are culturally nothing. We mean nothing. We are only interested in the bottom line. We have Levi’s, designer jeans, hamburgers, and Coca-Cola. We have REO Speedwagon. We have Journey.” He sardonically concludes, “(But) we also have the neutron bomb and poison gas so maybe that makes up for it.”
His words are a sharp critique of American culture, but they also point to the militarism of society. The United States would much rather develop and export deadly weapons to the world. It would much rather globalize capitalism and make money than invest in art and culture. And although his words were uttered more than two decades ago, the essence of his remark still carries great resonance today.
“Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words” consists entirely of archival footage, with no interviews with family, friends, or fellow artists. It took eight years to produce and was directed by Thorsten Schütte, who is from Germany. The Zappa Family, including his daughter Moon Unit, approved the film.
For the most part, it unfolds chronologically. Each period of Zappa’s career as a composer is linked up to views he had on art, the music business, drugs, media, politics, and censorship. Each opinion expressed demonstrates the deep cynicism and contempt Zappa had for the establishment. He produced well over 300 musical compositions in his career, and his body of work—its style and deconstruction of genres and its defiance of commercialism—stands as a gigantic middle finger to the corporate or political elites.
Part of the film focuses on the phenomenon of being well-known to Americans, who had never heard a single record he produced. To Zappa, this had everything to do with the media’s presentation of him as an ugly mustachioed hippie and pervert. The media had a fascination with him, but the radio stations would not play his music. The record companies would even sabotage his work and cut lyrics without telling him. It put Zappa in the position of going on television to confront the media representation of him as an artist in order to persuade more Americans to listen and appreciate his work. It was never very successful.
As Zappa sums it up, “In the U.S. especially, musicians are generally regarded as useless adjuncts to the society, unless they do something creative like write a Coca-Cola jingle. Then they will be accepted. But they usually are regarded as the scum of the earth. So if you want to be a musician you just have to realize that nobody is gonna care.”
He may have achieved minimal success in the United States, however, outside the country, his music was hugely popular in Europe. The people of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), including Václav Havel, resisted the Soviet Union while listening to Zappa. Which is why it make sense that the director of this documentary would be German and not American.
One quote in the film deals with the popularity he enjoyed early among the Sixties Generation. Zappa was careful not to become some kind of false idol. He was uninterested in leading some kind of political uprising. If his music engaged with political issues or current events, it was a mere byproduct of the artistic process. Unfortunately, it was not for fueling any particular movements.
Zappa did step into the realm of politics to defend against Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) committee founded to label violent or pornographic music for the “protection” of children. He believed he was railing against fascist theocracy, and a clip of his remarks during one of the PMRC’s hearings in 1985 appears in the documentary.
“The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years, dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design,” Zappa states.
While this does not appear in the film, Zappa also said during this same hearing:
Fundamentalism is not a state religion. The PMRC’s request for labels regarding sexually explicit lyrics, violence, drugs, alcohol, and especially occult content reads like a catalog of phenomena abhorrent to practitioners of that faith. How a person worships is a private matter, and should not be inflicted upon or exploited by others. Understanding the Fundamentalist leanings of this organization, I think it is fair to wonder if their rating system will eventually be extended to inform parents as to whether a musical group has homosexuals in it. Will the PMRC permit musical groups to exist, but only if gay members don’t sing, and are not depicted on the album cover?
Yet, beyond the words, what is most enlightening to see on screen is the commitment Zappa had to the creation of art. There are numerous people involved in the process, even when he turns to machines in the 1980s to create compositions. He hired an entire symphony orchestra in London to perform music he composed and did not care one bit whether the critics thought the music was art or not. He believed he could always find some way to reach people who liked music, and because of that, there was never any reason to stop composing music.
Like Zappa says, “Any artistic decision based on whether or not you’ll make money is not an artistic decision. It’s a business decision.” His prolific nature and volume of concert performances perhaps played some role in freeing him to commit so intensely to music. But it more likely the authenticity and integrity in which he approached his craft and life carried Zappa, made him someone who could survive the music business, and that reverberates throughout this captivating portrait.