Thursday, October 20, 2016

Eat That Question - Frank Zappa in His Own Words

This will be my 99th official movie review on this site, so if you are reading this, thanks for your time and support. I already plan on doing something special for my #100, to extend my support to a great talent who I feel deserves the recognition. But going through all I have written so far, I'm surprised to have got this far even if I had to struggle in some regards. For one, I had to retract my presence from social media for a spell because it wasn't doing my soul or my creativity any good. This meant I ended up sacrificing a connection which ran very deep to me, as well as losing touch with several very receptive people. I have been taking steps to getting back in the stratosphere, mostly on the strength of my devotion to writing.

I don't want to get too deep into this, instead resolving to continue to revitalize and strengthen my passion. So on the eve of my celebratory post, here is my latest review:

(R, Sony Pictures Classics, 93 mins., limited release date: June 24, 2016)

Growing up in Apache Junction High School, I may have been the only person in my drama class to bring a Frank Zappa CD to the dressing room.

My tastes will still formative and a lot of what I was getting into musically were cult artists. I was big on Paul Westerberg and The Replacements then and still am, but I also picked up on every Mother's Father through a compilation album called Have I Offended Someone? I preferred short, simple songs at the time, and the album at least contained some Zappa tunes for the neophyte: "Dinah-Moe Hummm," "Catholic Girls," "Bobby Brown (Goes Down)," "We're Turning Again," and "Valley Girl." This was barely scratching the surface of Zappa's discography, as the CD contained nothing as old as "Harry, You're a Beast" or "Call Any Vegetable," but it boiled down a lot of highlights from Overnite Sensation to The Mothers of Prevention.

And it did so by culling a lot of Zappa's bawdiest tracks, at least in terms of lyrics. One of the songs was "Jewish Princess," which was condemned by the Anti-Defamation League for such lines as "I don't want no troll, I just want a Yemenite hole." Like I said in the last review, tons of people had Porky's to get their illicit kicks. I chose Frank Zappa.

But Have I Offended Someone? turned out to be a gateway of sorts into Zappa's past, which has enough material for a companion volume devoted to his 1960s work. I eventually started hearing the kind of material Zappa wrote which earned him a reputation as a "composer" instead of "rock musician." The xylophone-heavy, jazz-structured perversions of R&B in which no runaway melody was strident enough to become a bar on Zappa's sheet. The discordant experiments with woodwinds and brass, like chamber-of-hell pop. The multitude of distorted voices spouting some dadaist catchphrase, especially in regards to such buzz words as "creamcheese" and "tinsel cock."

Frank Zappa was a genuine freak in a world eager to compartmentalize him, and the music exceeded his grungy attributes. And when it came to promoting himself on television, he drew blood with his sardonic estimations on a society that knew little about his recorded legacy, but held him in esteem or fear as an eloquent dissenter against the lowest common denominator. In 1981, upon the release of his Tinseltown Rebellion LP, one talk show host senses "a deep, permanent, irreversible cynicism" within Zappa, but is he really that different from George Carlin or Groucho Marx when you get right down to it? Zappa's immediate response is that he hopes his skepticism will prove contagious. A moment later, Zappa monologues about the subpar state of modern American culture, from designer jeans to schlock rock, a deprivation of identity upheld patriotically, and pathetically, with poison gas and neutron bombs.

Having read The Real Frank Zappa Book hoping to contract some of Zappa's righteous disdain, Thorsten Schütte's Eat That Question - Frank Zappa in His Own Words does the job visually, a feature-length mosaic drawing from videotaped cross-examinations and the occasional live performance. Going as far back as Zappa's boy wonder slot on Steve Allen's show in 1963, where the multi-instrumentalist improvised a deliriously discordant concerto for Allen's house band accompanied by bicycle, Eat That Question seeks to balance Zappa's outspoken public persona with a wider appreciation of Zappa's desired reputation as a composer in a cultural environment where your only chance at livelihood is to write jingles instead of suites.

Although hardly as all-encompassing as one would hope for a man who wrote 300 different arrangements and put out albums at a steady clip, Schütte does cull a chronologically satisfying array of song selections. From a version of "Plastic People" sung to the tune of "Louie Louie" to such Flo & Eddie-period highlights as "Penis Dimension" to a smidgen of "Approximate" from 1974's A Token of His Extreme special (featuring Ruth Underwood on the vibes and Chester Thompson on the drums) to his 1980s work bolstered by the presence of Ike "Thing-Fish" Willis ("Tinseltown Rebellion," "When the Lie's So Big"), Schütte gives you enough of Zappa at his band-leading best. The cherry on top are Zappa's conducting duties for both the London Symphony Orchestra and the Ensemble Modern (the German musicians captured for posterity on 1992's The Yellow Shark).

Lest you think this but a conduit for welcome renditions of "The Air" and "Cosmik Debris" (so good you'll demand another movie to piece together Zappa's musical accomplishments), Schütte gives Zappa a posthumous solo examination of the artist at his most Frank. When he released 1968's We're Only in It for the Money, Zappa ridiculed the "flower power" generation who flocked to San Francisco without mercy: "I'll stay a week and get the crabs and take the bus back home/I'm really just a phony but forgive me, ‘cause I'm stoned." Incidentally, he was still dogged by the perception that he was for the counterculture. Schütte finds the right sound bites to solidify Zappa's distance from the hippie scene, the highlight a notorious anecdote about Zappa's refusal to assist a group of Berlin radicals escalating into a riot during a Mothers concert.

Zappa refrained from habitual drug use, showing zero tolerance for any of his musicians getting high on the road to impede the flow of "entertainment on time." He also turned down numerous offers to play outdoor festivals in France for the benefit of the communist party. "Some people think that I am some sort of a political rebel," he says at one point. "Isn't it strange the fantasies that people have?" The only instance where Zappa was moved by international politics was when his once-blacklisted music helped bring down the Iron Curtain in Czechoslovakia, inspiring Vaclav Havel to fly Zappa over for a hero's welcome and a short-lived appointment to cultural ambassador. This was a rare triumph for Zappa in terms of opposing the forces of reaction; a few years before, he took the PMRC to task for trying to legislate warnings against "obscene" messages and content.

Like Carlin, Zappa frequently debunked the concept of Dirty Words as a barometer of moral impurity, less an affront to America's integrity than the movement of a "fascist theocracy" whose beliefs were so far right as to invoke Attila the Hun. But it's a fight Zappa had to bear arms against as far back as the late 1960s, when MGM Records reps would clandestinely remove a reference to a waitress' pad (in "Let's Make the Water Turn Black") because they thought of the more sanitary definition. A planned orchestral performance of the 200 Motels score at the Royal Albert Hall was canceled at the 11th hour by manager Marion Herrod because of such trigger words as "brassiere" (nowadays, Adele can drop more R-rated words at the same venue and sell at platinum).

Schütte doesn't include snippets of Frank Zappa's few U.S. novelty hits ("Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," "Dancin' Fool," "Valley Girl"), nor his music video for 1981's "You Are What You Is" (immortalized on Beavis & Butt-Head), but we do hear Zappa's international hit "Bobby Brown." The song was a chart-topper in Norway and Sweden, one would guess because of its doo-wop melody and not the perverted black comedy Zappa grafts onto it. Over a 1978 performance of the song in Munich, Zappa confesses his amusement upon learning it was a popular slow dance number despite its references to sadomasochism, date rape and premature ejaculation.

Eat That Question is not the conventional summation one might expect, but that's no excuse to hold out for Alex Winter's planned documentary. Zappa may have equated interviews with the Inquisition, but that didn't mean he wasn't about to shut up, proving dastardly enough to stymie his tormentors. Goaded into revealing the primary audience for his work, Zappa snipes back "That's none of your business." Winning a Grammy for the title song from Jazz from Hell, Zappa isn't the least bit amused until he demonstrates the Synclavier on the morning news and outright praises it for removing the human element.

Every documentary, even piecemeal ones like this, need an arc, and Schütte gets it from Jamie Gangel's candid discussion with Zappa on the Today Show from 1993. 52 years old and wasting away from prostate cancer, the degenerating fruits of his labor finally granting him massive European success, Zappa is as unrepentant, hilariously upfront and caustically bitter as earlier in the documentary. And then comes one of Zappa's final answers, in regards to how he wants to remembered: he simply scoffs, and says "That's not important." To Zappa, it's an egotistical act of gross spending more suited for former presidents than a simple composer.

The enigma of Frank Zappa remains despite all his testimonials which Schütte has assembled. He was passionate about free speech because it allowed him to spend years proving that nothing was sacred, and that he could offend everybody. And being misunderstood and stereotyped and censored for so long, Zappa could have been conditioned to believe that remembrance isn't a top priority. Cultural apathy, rigid conformity, closet fascism...all things Zappa is given the chance to denounce are surely worth the outrage. This is one movie where you should stay until after the closing credits if you really want to honor Zappa's spirit. But Thorsten Schütte, bless him, has made an effort, and all the ugly people can be happy he did.

Eat That Question - Frank Zappa in His Own Words is a perfect introduction for a world that can finally understand what made Frank Zappa so controversial but also a man who is dearly missed in spite of himself. There will always be hungry freaks, daddy, in need of a little motherly love. Let them eat Uncle Meat.

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