Movie review: Frank Zappa in his own words

Barry Paris
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“There is more stupidity than hydrogen in the universe, and it has a longer shelf life.” — Frank Zappa

That’s the kind of quote you worked hard to get from the funniest, most ingenious and complex American rock figure of the 20th century.

“Being interviewed is one of the most abnormal things you can do,” he says at the outset of this documentary. Zappa could barely conceal his contempt for the process but submitted to it a thousand times because he had to — in the absence of radio airtime — to sell his records and fill up his concert venues.

Why no airtime?

"Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words" opens Friday at Small Star Art House.

His tracks were too long, violating the 3-minute format. His music was too harsh. His subject matter was too raunchy. And his lyrics were riotously full of “dirty words.”

German director Thorsten Schütte’s portrait of an avant-garde icon and iconoclast comprises concert footage and interviews over the years, including one by a state trooper, in which Zappa provides irreverent, articulate, deadpan answers to all questions.

“Record companies have a way of always making sure your expenses exceed your profits,” he growls, adding, “I never wrote political songs, I wrote sociological songs.”

Testimony: The two realms collided spectacularly during his 1985 Senate testimony against Tipper Gore’s and Florida Sen. Paula Hawkins’ quest for sex-and-violence warning labels on music — an “ill-conceived piece of nonsense,” he said, prompting this legendary exchange:

Hawkins: “Mr. Zappa, toy boxes say ‘suitable for 5-7 years of age or 8-15,’ which gives you some guidance. Do you object to that?”

Zappa: “In a way I do, because that means somebody in an office someplace is making a decision about how smart my child is.”

Hawkins: “Well, I’d be interested to see what toys your kids have.”

Zappa: “Why would you be interested?”

Hawkins: “Uh ... just as a point of interest.”

Zappa: “Well, c’mon over to the house and I’ll show ’em to you.”

Big laugh. Legislation killed.

"Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words" opens Friday at Small Star Art House.

Music and humor: It’s hard to categorize his and the Mothers of Invention’s music, but the Mother Superior’s 60-some albums embraced sophisticated abstract-expressionist compositions, inspired by Varese and Stravinsky, in which he needed a baton to provide cues for the complex polyrhythms — multiple musical lines of conflicting beats and meters.

Blessed be those who hunger and thirst after humor, for their funnybones shall be tickled by Zappa making fun of everyone from Jewish-American princesses to Eskimos (“Watch out where the huskies go, and don’t you eat that yellow snow”). His classical album with Pierre Boulez’ “The Perfect Stranger” was based, he claimed, on “an elderly Republican couple attempting sex while breakdancing.” Comic xylophone rim-shots punctuate other pieces such as “Sinister Footwear,” “The Illinois Enema Bandit,” “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Sexually Aroused Gas Mask” on his Barking Pumpkin label. “Cosmik Debris” asks the age-old question, “Is that a real poncho or is that a Sears poncho?” “Tinsel Town Rebellion” mocks Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs.”

Schütte includes Zappa’s hilarious short-haired appearance on the Steve Allen show (c. 1962), performing his “Improvised Concerto for Two Bicycles, Prerecorded Tape and Musicians,” and great clips from “200 Motels,” the first feature film shot on videotape (with Keith Moon cavorting as a hot nun), plus Zappa’s great meeting with Vaclav Havel, who knew and loved his music, in Prague.

There’s too little music (and a total absence of his precious few mainstream “hits” such as “Dancin’ Fool” and “Valley Girl”) in the doc, but much evidence of the integrity that made him such a powerful force, in and out of music, always on guard, ready to pounce like a hawk on any inanity or absurdity.

1978: One day in 1978 over lunch at the old Carlton House, I mentioned his fondness for “The Rite of Spring.” Looking up from his Golden Triangleburger, Zappa said: “Did you know that Igor Stravinsky’s mailman was my high school English teacher?”

I did not know that.

“No kidding, I knew him in Hollywood. He quit teaching because he found out he could make more money as a mailman, and Stravinsky was on his route.”

We speculated at length about Stravinsky’s junk mail, and I suggested he compose a piece about it. A few years later he produced “Screaming Mailboxes of Destiny,” for which I claim some inspirational credit.

Like Zappa, we all take our brushes with immortality where we can get them.

"Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words"

Starring: Frank Zappa, Steve Allen, Mike Douglas, Vaclav Havel, Pierre Boulez.

Rating: R for language, some sexual references and brief nudity.