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Review:‘Question’ a partial picture of musical genius

Tom Long
The Detroit News

There’s no denying the wonderful archival footage that surfaces in “Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words.”

Seriously, a young, clean-shaven Zappa on a Steve Allen show playing a bicycle while an orchestra honks and bleeps behind him? Priceless.

And there’s also no denying the power of Zappa’s cynicism while talking to interviewers. The man died more than 20 years ago, yet many of his caustic remarks still sizzle today.

Beyond all that, the power and range of his musical abilities come through as well, even if we only get to hear bits and pieces of his works, from hard rock to orchestral. Zappa was constantly inventing, stretching, breaking boundaries and exploring.

Any true Zappa fan will eat this stuff up. For novices it may open up the universe.

But ...

The film, sanctioned by the extremely protective Zappa family, also reflects some of the artist’s failings.

We see iteration after iteration of Zappa’s band, The Mothers of Invention, yet none of the brilliant musicians — Jimmy Carl Black, Ruth and Ian Underwood, the Fowler Brothers, Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, George Duke, Napoleon Murphy Brock, it goes on — are ever identified or treated as anything more than puppets.

This is in keeping with Zappa’s self-description as a “composer,” which he certainly was. Still ...

What’s more, the film focuses entirely on Zappa’s work with the Mothers and, later, his symphonic pieces, completely ignoring his solo instrumental projects like the highly influential “Hot Rats” and “The Grand Wazoo,” and glides by the fact that he was a guitar virtuoso.

So much for nitpicking. “Eat That Question” will be heaven for any Zappa fan. For the uninitiated, a brave new world awaits you.

Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.

Twitter: @toomuchTomLong

‘Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words’

GRADE: B

Rated R for language, some sexual references and brief nudity

Running time: 93 minutes