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Documentary lets Frank Zappa do the talking

“Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words” chronologically tracks the contrarian’s career.
“Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words” chronologically tracks the contrarian’s career. Sundance Institute

What would Frank Zappa have to say about the unseemly battle being fought over his estate by his children that’s put the guitarist and composer’s name back in the headlines more than two decades after his death?

We can’t know, of course, because Zappa, who died of prostate cancer in 1993, couldn’t have foreseen the squabble between his oldest son, who recently changed his live show brand from Zappa Plays Zappa to Dweezil Zappa plays Whatever The ... He Wants: The Cease and Desist Tour after he was threatened with legal action by the Zappa Family Trust, which is run by Dweezil’s younger brother, Ahmet.

But it’s safe to say that Frank Zappa wouldn’t have been silent on the issue. Because if there’s one thing that Zappa loved to do, besides write and perform dense, sometimes brilliant, often funny, and frequently inscrutable songs that blurred the lines between rock, jazz, and 20th century classical music, it was talk.

So it is fitting that German director Thorsten Schutte’s new documentary is called “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa In His Own Words.” A free-speech advocate who was best known in the years before his death as an acutely intelligent talk-show guest and critic of the music industry warning-label system advocated by Tipper Gore, Zappa was never at a loss for words.

Schutte’s film, which began with the cooperation of Zappa’s late wife Gail and has the blessing of Ahmet and his sisters, Moon and Diva (but not Dweezil), lets him speak for himself.

“Eat That Question” chronologically tracks the contrarian’s career, beginning with an amusing 1963 network TV appearance on “The Steve Allen Show.” An uncharacteristically clean-cut Zappa _ later described by a British television host as “a force of cultural darkness, bearded and gross and filthy, a lone brutal reminder of music’s ability to evoke chaos and destruction” _ cleverly turns two bicycles into avant-garde musical instruments.

From there, however, the movie doesn’t go in for music-documentary conventions. There are no baby pictures, recollections from childhood friends, or talking heads of any kind, other than Zappa and his interviewers.

“I’m famous,” Zappa says. “But nobody knows what I do.”

So he talks to Mike Douglas, appears on “What’s My Line?” and chats with the “Today Show.” He discusses his love for Stravinsky, Varese and Ravel, and is fawned over by journalists in the Czech Republic, where he’s hailed as a hero by president and fanboy Vaclav Havel.

In perhaps the strangest clip, Pennsylvania state trooper Chuck Ash interviews Zappa _ who despite his hirsute appearance was no hippie _ for an antidrug campaign for a Montgomery County school district.

Do we get to know “the real Frank Zappa”?

Something close to it, though Zappa, of course, tells us that’s nigh on impossible since “being interviewed is one of the most abnormal things that you can do ... . It’s two steps removed from the Inquisition.”

Still, it’s telling that Zappa _ rarely seen without a cigarette, always unafraid to offend and delighted to satirize societal norms _ keeps talking, in hopes of achieving what every artist is really after: being understood.

Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words

Rated: R for language, some sexual references, and brief nudity. Starring: Frank Zappa and Steve Allen. Director: Thorsten Schutte. Running time: 93 minutes. Theater: Flicks.

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