Are you hardcore?

That is the question Frank Zappa asked in his 1981 ad for his Shut Up ’n Play Yer Guitar box set. The implication being, if you weren’t a hardcore fan, you probably wouldn’t “get” three full albums of extended guitar solos extracted from various live performances. And that is the question that should be asked of anyone considering viewing the new Frank Zappa documentary, Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words, named for the Zappa song originally intended to be called “Eat That Christian” for the album The Grand Wazoo.

See, hardcores know that kind of stuff. Neophytes don’t. And it’s neophytes who will benefit most from the new film by Thorsten Schütte.

Set up almost chronologically — hardcores will note a few slips in the timeline — Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words comprises interviews and live footage spanning Zappa’s near-three-decade music business career. This is, in essence, no different than other Zappa docs (there are many out there) save for two features: 1. The lack of narration and 2. Some very rare and never-before-seen clips.

Without a narrator or dates attendant to each segment, the tyro may have a difficult time placing (in both time and space) where Zappa was and why it’s important to his history. The black-and-white clip of a young, suit-clad Zappa is easier to place than the clips of the shaggy, mid-’70s Zappa. And the later clips, too, can be confusing for those not intimately familiar with Zappa’s timeline. The ’80s footage (Zappa died of prostate cancer in 1993) can be a bit confusing, considering Zappa was performing live, appearing before Congress and on news programs defending artists’ First Amendment rights and working on symphony projects during that span.

Schütte wisely interspersed commonly viewed clips with rarer footage. Indeed, The Steve Allen Show is widely available on YouTube and had been circulating years before in collector’s circles. Then we get a glimpse of Zappa in rehearsal with the original Mothers, a clip I’d never seen, and I have more than 100 VHS tapes and DVDs spanning Zappa’s life. It is this stuff the hardcores will drool over.

There’s not a lot of it, but it’s there. Especially interesting are the segments surrounding the 200 Motels controversy, when Zappa was banned from performing portions of it at the Royal Albert Hall. His commentary, and that of the “officials” responsible for shutting the show down, are both hysterical and unnerving. And hearing Zappa defending “unborn ideas” as Right to Lifers defend “unborn babies” offers insight into Zappa’s deep commitment to his art.

I was especially moved by an interview I’d never seen during which Zappa says he benefits from “no foundation grant, no government assistance, no corporation, no committee.” He’s just, as he puts it, a “crazy guy who spends his own money” to make his music heard. Today’s musicians should think more like Zappa and less like the corporate shills he rails against.

A few of the abbreviated interviews will leave fans clamoring for the full-length segments to be released. And the rarest stuff, the hard-to-find live shots, are difficult to watch knowing that they, too, will not be shown in their entirety. On the other hand, having the opportunity to view them at all is a treat.

Ample time is spent on the preparation for the London Symphony concerts conducted by Kent Nagano in the early ’80s. The juxtaposition of Zappa in sweatpants and the more proper symphony players is telling. Frank hated the uppity nature of symphony hall etiquette, despised what he referred to as symphonic “bogus pomp.” Yet his serious music is among the most important — and most difficult to play — of the 20th-century composers.

Still, there’s much repeated here for the hardcores. Even cursory Zappa fans have seen the commercially available Baby Snakes and Does Humor Belong in Music? footage. The choice to include these concert snippets is baffling. Much of the interview footage is also widely available but, again, to the newbie, it may seem fresh and relevant, justifying its inclusion.

A bonus for both neophytes and hardcores alike is the pristine live footage from the ’73 Skansen (Stockholm, Sweden) concert. A gem among collectors, the concert has been available in various lengths and low-to-OK-quality video for years. But here in Eat That Question, the clip is crystal-clear. Of course, we’re left wondering when the entire concert will be released in such high-resolution. And such is the conundrum faced by hardcores: sitting through 10 or 15 minutes of stuff we’ve seen a million times for that two-or-three minutes of rare stuff we crave.

Nearly all who see the film, however, will be touched by an ailing Zappa conducting Edgard Varèse’s Ionization. Zappa had been working on a collection of Varese’s pieces for release on Zappa’s Barking Pumpkin label. Watching the frail Zappa grinding through the piece is both inspiring and sad — an apropos closer.

John E. Citrone

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