Aside from his laudable status as an anti–Parents Music Resource Center crusader in the 1980s, his radar for weird and uncool artists to work/associate with (Timothy Carey, Captain Beefheart, the Monkees, Flo and Eddie), and his admirable mustache commitment, Frank Zappa has always existed in my mind as an icon of abstraction. He clearly represents something profound to people who love him—a goulash of freedom, rebellion, and absolute artistic sovereignty. Like Willie Nelson or Jerry Garcia. Or Ayn Rand.

There's something else about Zappa that was always both alluring and repellent: the contempt factor. Behind the implacable deadpan that somehow remained a fixture of pop culture several decades after his music was in the pop sphere, was a ceaseless hateful sneer for everyone and everything that wasn't his own music.

He was forever railing against "plastic people" and "designer jeans" and Coca-Cola, forever making ironic usage of Eisenhower Americanisms like "nifty" and "spiffy"—all the classic signifiers of first wave rock 'n' roll self-seriousness. Except that Zappa seemed to hate rock 'n' roll, too.

To combat this, he made some of the most spitefully silly rock ever made, larded with (intentionally?) shallow observations disguised as social commentary, and casual misanthropy disguised as satire. Meanwhile, he also continued to explore his true musical vocation: outré modes of 20th-century composition, inspired by the likes of Varèse, Stravinsky, and Webern.

As Zappa's music grew increasingly cynical and obscurant, his contempt for the audience that couldn't/wouldn't/didn't get it became deeper rooted. The tension between the high art of composition and the low art of fame was the story of his life as a public figure.

Then he died of cancer in 1993 and everyone pretended they'd loved him the whole time, which is a very Zappa irony. But like other Zappa ironies, it isn't pleasing.

Eat That Question is compiled from interviews and performance footage from American and European TV, in which Zappa comes across equal parts funny and humorless, intriguing and fucking unbearable. (That's exactly how I'd describe his music, too.)

At his best, he schools Republican pundits about the dangers of theocratic fascism. At his worst, he reminds us that many male hippie icons were sexist, homophobic solipsists with narrow senses of humor and a thralldom to their own reactionary POV.

Watching Zappa talk and glare, I was reminded of the days when irony was a binary, not a spectrum. When people either "got it" or didn't. During such times, the pop artist who told a TV interviewer about the stupidity of America, or the corruption of the music biz has an easier time seeming interesting, brave, aware. Those days are long gone, as is the man himself. It's totally plausible that he was a musical genius, and he was clearly a visionary. But in the documentary, he just seems joyless and obvious.

Nevertheless, he represents a fascinating intersection of libertarianism, counterculture, avant-garde, and mass audience that is unlikely ever to come again. This is a film for fans, not fence-sitters. And that seems correct. recommended