Frank Zappa, who died in 1993, battled against America's repressive forces through his music and social criticism.
Zappa satirized rock stardom and the counter-culture while becoming a kind of anti-rock hero rock hero to millions. While creating increasingly sophisticated avant-garde compositions and films, he used his platform to criticize American religion, political repression, educational conformity and consumerism.
Zappa's brilliant, erratic career as a musician and social critic is revealed as eerily prescient in the documentary "Eat That Question," not released until last year.
The film shows scenes of Zappa's life through concert footage, a surprising variety of TV interviews and appearances and news coverage of events such as his Senate testimony against a plan to make record companies give ratings of lyrics.
That effort to affix warning labels on albums with explicit content was led by Tipper Gore, shown in the film testifying in 1985 in favor of the restrictions before the Senate committee that also heard Zappa's eloquent statement against them. While Tipper Gore and other mothers saw the labels as protecting childhood innocence, Zappa unveiled them as steps toward encroaching censorship.
Tipper was at the time the wife of then U.S. Sen. Al Gore, whose Supreme Court-sanctioned loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 election would bring a dark era of eroding American freedom, heightened by Sept. 11. In retrospect, Zappa's statements in "Eat the Question" seem prophetic.
While the film gives a complete portrait of Zappa, it focuses on his late career, all but ignoring the ground-breaking 1960s albums he created with his band, the Mothers of Invention. Too much attention is give to the film and album "200 Motels," one of his least successful projects. Footage of "Bobby Brown" and other late satirical songs show a forced heavy-handedness that contrast with the deft wit of his 1960s classics.
Zappa's late orchestral compositions and increasing interest in computer-generated music receive respectful attention. Those scenes of Zappa's perfectionism and growing musical mastery made me want to discover Zappa's late work, which I, like many of his fans, lost touch with.
The film gives stirring scenes of Zappa being greeted as a hero by Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel in that nation's early days of independence. Zappa's music inspired the Czech struggle for independence from the Soviet Union. In honor of his work, Havel appointed Zappa as a cultural minister.
A heart-rending Today show interview with Zappa in his last days battling prostate cancer shows him as a heroic figure committed to his art to the end. He died at age 52.
Zappa was a champion of freedom of speech, political participation, cultural diversity and educational pluralism. As repression deepens, "Eat the Question" reveals anew the relevance of his voice and music.