Saturday, June 25, 2016

New Frank Zappa Documentary Affirms Lifelong Advocacy For Freedom of Speech


Pennsylvania state trooper Chuck Ash and Frank Zappa, circa early '80s

-by Denise Sullivan

"A country that doesn't sustain its culture… maybe it shouldn't exist," Frank Zappa once said of his beloved USA. "They don't make it easy for you to be a musician…"Esthetic enrichment-- this is not a major consideration in the United States," he said. Zappa was asserting these inalienable truths over 30 years ago, at a time when he was already well into his under-appreciated and misunderstood career, and before he'd turned his attention to advocating for other artists at risk of erasure and censorship. Contrary to his media image as a drug-crazed hippie, Zappa was a serious composer, performer, and freedom of expression advocate who was also drug-free and generally politically and personally conservative. As he worked tirelessly through art and activism to shine a light on our culture's inconsistencies and shortcomings, his music became more exalted outside the U.S., culminating in awards and an appointment by Czech president, Václav Havel. Bolstered by an accumulated and vast worldwide media archive underscoring the artist's international stature, director Thorsten Schütte has compiled a trove of largely unseen footage and cut it into Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words, a new documentary highlighting the complexities of the artist's public persona and its relationship to the media.

"Zappa is a very eloquent person in comparison to a great many pop stars. It's rewarding to listen to him," explained Schütte during an interview in San Francisco last week. His film's unusual format-- no exposition, no captioning-- is a fresh approach to music documentary. The wealth of unseen performance and interview footage delivered by his riveting subject makes for exciting viewing, though at the outset of the filmmaking process the director had his doubts if the approach would add up to anything in the end. "My goodness, will you be able to really listen to him for 90 minutes, would it be fatiguing? He's a difficult character; he has an attitude, very spiky," he said. Luckily, early cuts of the film revealed Zappa's ability to cut through the screen and deliver a deep message on freedom of thought and expression, his lifelong passions, and concerns no less relevant now than they were in the artist's own life and times. With his brand of commentary and social satire still raging, Eat That Question is a testament to Zappa's prescience of vision with valuable tools for the here and now.

Born and raised in Baltimore in 1940 by parents who were of Italian immigrant stock mixed with French, Greek and Middle Eastern origins, the Zappa family relocated to California and moved around a bit, eventually settling in the Inland Empire. In the film, an early television appearance on The Steve Allen Show depicts Zappa as a young composer who "plays" the bicycle, and that takes care of the youth portion of Zappa's life. The film begins in earnest with the 1966 release of the Mothers of Invention debut album Freak Out. As  Zappa is thrust into the spotlight, he largely disavows hippie culture and asserts his embrace of more experimental, classical composers like Varèse, Stravinsky, and Anton Webern. Though facts were Zappa had a rock 'n' roll background, he preferred to be perceived as a composer, and it's an identity he stuck with for the remainder of his musical life as a meticulous bandleader and auteur, as inventive as he was dedicated to entertaining and enlightening.

One of the more obscure and interesting clips Schütte unearthed was an interview with Pennsylvania state trooper Chuck Ash, conceived as a children's educational television piece on the dangers of drugs. The wild juxtaposition is right in line with Zappa's more-than-meets-the eye positions on art and life. "We avoided captioning," says Schütte. "We wanted the footage to speak for itself. We figured the audience was informed enough that when we are talking about the Ho Chi Minh Riots in Berlin that we're talking about 1968." I didn't have the heart to tell Schütte that he likely overestimated the intelligence of the American viewing public, but there is no doubt the artful approach leaves questions open and opportunities for further exploration.

Schütte worked closely with Zappa's widow, Gail Zappa who screened a cut of the film before she passed away in October of 2015. "She approved and liked the project, I think, because I'd promised her I would set forth around the world and continue to access things she hasn't seen and didn't have. For the sake of curating their own archive accurately, we had a mutual interest and she said, go ahead." Schütte finished the film with the cooperation of Ahmet Zappa, the second to youngest of the four Zappa children and executor of the Zappa Family Trust.

Like Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles and other social satirists, Zappa was an equal opportunity offender, taking no mercy on women, homosexuals, the disabled, people of color, and white males. Though the work could be polarizing, he was ultimately less concerned about protecting his own right to free speech than he was that of others when he elected to get involved in rock's most famous fight against censorship: In the mid-'80s, Zappa stood up against the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), the Washington wives committee spearheaded by Tipper Gore that aimed to warn parents of the evils lurking within the lyrics of their children's record collections by affixing labels to them.

"You have to understand he wasn't under attack; it was about Sheena Easton, Prince, Ozzy Osbourne… but he stood his ground under fire from the beginning of his time with those issues," explained Schütte. Indeed the PMRC hearings provided hours of potential material for the film, though in the end, much of it was left out with Schütte noting most of the hearings are available online as are the transcripts. "You could have a whole film about it with John Denver and Dee Snider," he says, though his compressed narration by Zappa provides "a link between the first two thirds of the film and the last third," in which Zappa largely shuns the spotlight and returns to creative work.

It's hard to know just how close his international media encounters got to the "real" Zappa but while viewing Eat That Question, one gets the sense that what he gave to the camera was pretty close to his authentic self.

"I hate to see anybody with a closed mind, on any topic," he once said. A lifelong learner, "always a freak, but never a hippie," Zappa kept busy and evolving until he died in 1993 at the age of 52 of prostate cancer. Rock music has not yet seen his likes in the 21st Century, though it could certainly use a friend and advocate as publicly committed as he was to artistic rights and freedoms.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words opened June 24, last night, in New York and Los Angeles and goes into wider theatrical release July 1.

Denise Sullivan is the author of Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop. She writes from San Francisco on gentrification and the arts.



At 7:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That trailer made me go listen to Chunga's Revenge

At 7:41 PM, Blogger Tara Greene said...

Zappa was a great inspiration to me and many of my friends growing up in the 60's, We listened to him all the time at our lifedrawing classes. I got to see frank play live in small clubs twice and at a few rock and roll shows too I believe he was killed off by the government for speaking the truth.


Post a Comment

<< Home