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‘Eat That Question’ tells Frank Zappa’s story in his own words

Frank Zappa appears on TV's "What's My Line" in a 1971 clip seen in "Eat That Question." | @ Fremantlemedia North America/Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics

Composer, businessman, guitarist, provocateur — all of these classifications apply to Frank Zappa, who died of cancer in 1993 at the age of 52.

But they each paint an incomplete picture of this most complex man.

A new film finds a creative solution to this problem: Let the man speak for himself. “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words” (now showing at the Music Box Theatre and Century 12 in Evanston) tells Zappa’s stories through decades of television interviews and performances.

The project was a massive labor of love for its director, German-born documentary filmmaker Thorsten Schütte.

“I grew up with his music and I was always very fond of his whole body of work,” he said. “But from the filmmaker’s point of view over the years, I’m doing documentaries for over 20 years now, [and] every time when I was researching in some archive I was always looking for what, for example, Italian television had in their vaults, [or] what the Swiss had in their vaults. When you’re traveling you do that kind of research. Certain snippets were popping up.”

It was around a decade ago, Schütte said, that the idea came to assemble this archival material into a film of its own.

“When you look extensively at all of this material that we found, [the] unedited interviews, unreleased materials,” Schütte explained, “a whole different Zappa emerges than the one that we know, the one that is limited to lots of cliches.”

The resulting film feels of a piece with Zappa itself in the way it dodges, subverts and generally scoffs at the standard-issue biopic template.

“There are lots of music documentaries out there — on Zappa but also on many other musicians — that are very formulaic,” Schütte said. “They always use those patterns of having those quotes of contemporaries, the usual suspects, celebrities that then tell something about their good memories of this and this and that and that.

“Many times, you feel a little bit unsatisfied with not really getting an understanding of who the person really was,” he continued. “You have to get into the mode of the character. So the goal here was to give the maximum of time to Zappa himself, to see him grow, to see him develop his position, to see him over this timespan of over 40 years how he’s handling the media, and to tell his story through his media appearance.”

Among the movie’s executive producers is Ahmet Zappa, Frank’s son.

“My hat’s off to [Schütte] because what he had to do, he’s like the Sherlock Holmes of Zappa in identifying the right kind of content for the movie that he was making,” Zappa said.

Schütte’s film, Zappa said, serves as a chronicle of his father’s evolving relationship with the media.

“I lived through it, so in between each one of these interviews he was my dad,” Zappa said. “I knew what was happening at home, what he was talking about, what he was fighting for certainly in the later years of his life. So to see that relationship changing with the media was fascinating.”

Before he was famous, Frank Zappa appeared on “The Steve Allen Show” to demonstrate how to make music with a bicycle. | @ Retro Video, Inc-2/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Before he was famous, Frank Zappa appeared on “The Steve Allen Show” to demonstrate how to make music with a bicycle. | @ Retro Video, Inc-2/Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Running from his 1963 appearance on “The Steve Allen Show” to a 1993 interview on “The Today Show” shortly before his death, “Eat That Question” shows Frank Zappa as a man of fierce intellectual focus, never one to waste a word or a note.

“Frank never said an ‘um’ or a ‘like.’ He just, to me, said it perfectly,” Zappa said.”In my own life, to make my point a little clearer, I can tell you so many times when I’ve said, ‘Oh, I wish I would have said that,’ or, ‘If I just changed this in my statement I would have been clearer.’ … That was not an issue for Frank.

“So that’s fascinating to me. When you watch him he’s so in the moment and everything was at his disposal to articulate exactly what he was thinking or feeling. Seeing this movie, I got this sense that it’s like walking into a bear trap in some instances.”