Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

                                           An Inventive Motherf***er

                                                    Review by Ken Burke

Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews.  Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up.  Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
 While I use the above boilerplate warning in all of my postings it may have more relevance than usual here because the film under review is just now opening in my San Francisco area during this coming weekend (7/1-3/2016 plus the 4th of July holiday, so it's possibly opening in your home zone too; you can check the Theater Listings within the 1st of the film’s Related Links below to see where and when you might get access to it over the next couple of months) With this in mind, you might want to consider reading my review later so that I don’t ruin anything.  However, given that this is about a guy who’s been dead since 1993 containing interview and concert footage from previously-shown-sources I doubt there’s much in my words that could spoil your day (except my general lack of journalistic structure, but you should be used to that by now) unless you just need to be totally surprised about the existence of Frank Zappa.
     Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words       (Thorsten Schütte)
A documentary about the late highly-respected-by-some, categorically-condemned-by-others experimental rock musician, who refused to be held to the limits of social mores, pop music expectations, or record-company-indifference; this digest of his thoughts, attitudes, and responses to the artificiality of interviews is all from his perspective, along with some performance footage.
 As I’ve noted in past reviews of feature-length-documentariess, my usual review structure for dramatic-narrative-films (What Happens, So What?, Bottom Line Final Comments) doesn’t work so well with the docs, particularly that 1st category, especially in an instance like this one where essentially what we’re getting for 90 min. is a collage of statements (generally very similar in tone and content) directly from the film’s subject, Frank Zappa, augmented by various snippets of concert footage.  What really matters in a case such as this is whether the presentation either gives you more than you previously knew about the subject—or person—at hand or gives you a reason to be intrigued by what you learn if you weren’t previously familiar with what’s being elaborated on screen.  For the diehard-Zappa-fans (of whom there were plenty at the press screening I attended) Eat That Question … will likely be warmly welcomed as another immersion in this iconoclast-hero’s long-gone-presence (he died from prostate cancer in 1993, age 52); for those (like me) who were aware of him from when he burst onto the rock music scene in 1966 with Freak Out! but didn’t keep up with his career on any sort of ongoing basis after that, this film serves as a nice refresher on the attitudes and musical innovations of one of the most unique, unclassifiable composer/performers of the 20th century (influenced by a variety of others, from avant-garde musician Edgard Varèse to blues masters Johnny “Guitar” Watson and B.B. King).

 For those who know virtually nothing about him (including my otherwise-musically-hip-wife [much more than me where hip-hop is concerned], Nina, who attended the screening with me) this doc will likely serve as a revelation about a man who achieved the near-impossible of reasonably-supporting himself in a mass-media-industry while refusing to accommodate to the demands of such a hard-commerce-oriented-structure.  Although he did agree to change the name of his famous band from simply the Mothers to the Mothers of Invention due to the connotations that the previous name has to a word in the title of this posting; regarding income as a musician, though, he noted that “Record companies have a way of making sure your expenses always exceed your profits.”  By the way, this film’s strange title is taken from a Zappa song you'll find on his 1972 album, The Grand Wazoo.

 Nina was highly impressed with what she saw, later describing Zappa as “playing music inside out” because the frequent concert footage contained in Eat That Question … consistently displays a refusal to stick to anything in the usually-expected-areas of melodic structures, instrumentation choices, lyrical content, or even stage appearance (as Zappa and whatever drummer he might have been working with in these scenes frequently appear shirtless, no doubt much-more-comfortable-attire for playing under the hot glare of stage lighting).  You’ll find many interview snippets contained in this current film that offer a well-rounded-picture of Zappa as a man following his own drum-beat (appropriate, given that he says he began his interest in music as a drummer, but banging on kitchen pots and pans until he got access to an actual drum kit) from the time he was a kid who starting “composing” music by creating visual arrangements of notes, not knowing yet what they’d sound like when played, then moving on to such Dada experiments as an appearance on the old TV series The Steve Allen Show (1956-1964) where Zappa and Allen in 1963 used bicycles as percussion instruments, joined at will by spontaneous contributions from Allen’s regular orchestra and Zappa’s recorded electronic sounds played from the engineers’ booth.  Later in life he’d go from fighting for protection for the recording industry from proposed government-required-warning-labels for lyrics such as his that contained profanity or sexual content (although he lost that battle so that certain albums still carry parental warning stickers; there’s a great clip where he’s being questioned in 1985 by Florida Senator Paula Hawkins, who wants to know what kind of toys his children play with so he invites her over to see for herself) to receiving an accolade from that industry, winning the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for his 1986 Jazz from Hell album (which got one of those mandated-labels, even with no lyrics).  Then he shifted from standard song structures entirely, focusing more on orchestral compositions of what would be understood as modern classical music.

Zappa had good taste in cats;
this one looks just like my little Inky
 The good thing about this film if you just want a quick, consistent dose of what characterized its complex subject is that—as the subtitle tells you—everything that’s said about Zappa here is also said by Zappa so that you’re not getting any interpretations of his thoughts and intentions from the perspective of other commentators; the bad thing about that, though, is that if you don’t know much about Zappa before coming into a screening of Eat That Question … you won’t get much of a context of his larger presence in the music world, such as you’d find in a more traditional doc structure, like the A&E Biography episode to be found in my 3rd Related Link to this film farther below.  Therefore, I faced a bit of a quandary in deciding on a star rating for this very entertaining film because it raised some nagging questions for me—as with my experience of another documentary, Particle Fever (Mark Levinson, 2014; review in our March 13, 2014 posting), about the verification of the crucial-subnuclear-particle known as the Higgs boson in which I went against critical consensus (Rotten Tomatoes 96% positive reviews, Metacritic 87%) by giving that film only 3 stars (somewhat because I felt it was too geared toward physicists who’d already understand what it’s importance was while not explaining clearly enough for the rest of us non-scientists just how crucial the Higgs is for our continued existence but largely because I had stumbled upon a 2012 BBC doc, The Hunt for Higgs, which I found to be more accessible, detailed, and useful for a general audience, without being superficial), whereas I’d been much more accepting (4 of my precious stars) toward another doc, Janis: Little Girl Blue (Amy Berg, 2015; review in our December 2, 2015 posting) even though it, like Eat That Question …, drew heavily on personal statements (mostly letters) from its subject but there was still enough overall lifetime-context presented so that you got a fairly-complete (as much as you can be in about 105 min.) understanding of not only who Janis Joplin was to herself but what she meant to the world at large.

 I think that larger context is missing just enough from Eat That Question that I must diverge, at least from the RT critics (with their 91% positive stance, at least at my “press” time, but that’s based on just 23 reviews so you might want to consult the Related Link below later to see if that’s changed; I’m more in line with the MC 75% but that’s based on even fewer reviews—14, also requiring a later revisit).  
I will admit, though, that Eat That Question … does contain one segment you won’t find in my A&E-cited-doc below, when Zappa travels to Czechoslovakia in 1990 where he’s given a great “hero’s welcome” at the airport, then has an official meeting with Czech President Václav Havel, indicative of how popular this American musician was in Europe in those years.  This shows exactly what Schütte wants to capture with his intimate portrait of a man whose free-form-life-and-career this director has long admired:  “I hope that this fresh look at the composer Frank Zappa will not just be relevant to his early listeners. More and more young music consumers are discovering Zappa for themselves. Zappa’s body of work stands as a counter-statement to streamlined and commercialized pop music, in a time lacking controversial, outspoken and polarizing iconoclasts. The life and art of Frank Zappa connects to universal questions that so many can relate to. How can an artist stay true to his art and ideas? How does one handle rejection and the limitations of a creative output? And what is the ultimate price to pay for the freedom of expression?”

 Although I do have reservations about this otherwise-engaging-stroll through the creative-freedom-position strenuously promoted by the complicated Mr. Zappa (despite his anti-establishment-rejection of organized religion and censorship he called himself “conservative” with the standard allotment of wife, kids [even though he and wife gave them the unique names of Moon {female, if you can’t tell—her middle name of Unit probably doesn’t help much either}, Dweezil {male, also hard to decipher from name alone}, Ahmet, and Diva], and mortgage along with no personal interest in drugs [except his ever-present-cigarettes], yet he blasted Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush [I imagine “Shrub” Bush—to quote Texas political columnist Molly Ivins—would have gotten the same treatment had Zappa been around to observe his “leadership”] for their legacy-seeking actions), I did get a few additional insights into the creative process of this film because I was fortunate enough to have German director Schütte available for a Q & A at my screening.  He explained that he worked extensively with widow Gail Zappa on this project (which is why it took so long to come together, as he had to gain her trust before she gave her cooperation, along with final-cut-authority, to him; sadly, she died October 7, 2015 before the film’s general release); that Frank was more well-known and embraced in Europe than in the U.S. because he toured there more actively, building up a loyal audience in the process; that the research-quest for obtaining all of this archival footage began 8 years ago with hopes of being done by 2014 so that the clip after the final credits of Zappa admonishing young adults to put down the booze and drugs in order to go vote was not originally intended as a comment on the current U.S. Presidential campaign (although Schütte acknowledges its serendipitous-timely-appropriateness); and that it’s sad to learn how much archival footage of all sorts of subjects now no longer exists because problems such as poor preservation, indifference, and budgetary-needs to reuse videotape stock.

 Sometimes in writing these reviews I have to ponder for awhile before deciding on what I hope to be an appropriate Musical Metaphor as a final word on what I’ve been blabbing about; 
not so this time, though, because Zappa provides an extensive catalogue of music that for me easily demonstrates his no-holds-barred-attitude toward idiosyncratic tonal (and atonal) forms and content.  Maybe there are other choices I could have made from his vast catalogue, but what’s always appealed to me is his pragmatic advice by an Eskimo mother to her son to “Watch out where the Huskies go An’ don’t you eat that yellow snow,” so here’s “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” at (from the 1974 Apostrophe album).  If you’re intrigued by this selection, you might want to watch a performance of the entire "Yellow Snow Suite" (16:35)—“Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow,” “Nanook Rubs It,” “St. Alfonzo’s Pancake Breakfast"—from an October 13, 1978 show at the Capital Theatre, Passaic NJ (the black & white video quality is terrible but the audio is taken directly form the house audio system so it’s beautifully clear with the entire suite’s operatic-like-structure reminding me a bit of Queen’s famous "Bohemian Rhapsody" [from their 1975 A Night at the Opera album] so I added that in as well).

 I had to get this (and a separate-posting-review, of Maggie's Plan [Rebecca Miller]) into cyberspace a bit earlier than usual this week because Nina and I are off to San Francisco for a little celebration of our 26th wedding anniversary (we enjoyed our 29th year of being together last February, with reminiscences about our wonderfully-accidental-meeting at Paul Simon’s Berkeley CA concert tour in support of his fabulous 1986 Graceland album).  Simon's now seriously considering retirement, but I’ll be back as usual (at usual length, as well, I’m sure) next week.
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Here’s more information about Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words: (42:09, a more traditional exploration of Zappa’s life from the TV cable A&E network [with a couple of ads for it within this video] still with extensive commentary from him—along with concert footage—but also more historical context from narrators and commentators than in the documentary reviewed above [original video format stretched to contemporary widescreen format, with the overall video quality not that great either, but it is usefully informative even if a bit aesthetically-painful to look at])

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.

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