This documentary directed by Alex Winter opens with a portrait of the ostensibly outrageous musician Frank Zappa in a moment of nobility. It is footage shot in Prague in 1991, two years before Zappa’s death from cancer at the age of 52.
Zappa, whose work was one of the cultural inspirations for the future Czech Republic’s Velvet Revolution, became a latter-day national hero there. So on this occasion, which would be the last time he played guitar in public, the perfectionist musician consented to perform with an unrehearsed pickup band, to celebrate the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region. Of the new country his audience will bring into being, Zappa says, “Keep it unique.”
“Zappa” foregrounds the laudable and often astonishing aspects of the man’s work and personality. A self-taught musician with a near-maniacal work ethic, over the years he came to regard his efforts in rock ’n’ roll as a day gig, necessary to support his more ambitious composing efforts. Despite his personal aloofness, he continues to inspire the musicians who worked with him; in interviews, the guitarist Steve Vai and the pianist and percussionist Ruth Underwood get very emotional when contemplating his loss.
The movie doesn’t ignore the sexism of Zappa’s lyrics, or his occasional smugness in dealing with the press (among others). But it places these features in contexts that give them a certain coherence, while not entirely excusing them. Zappa mavens might be disappointed that some of the man’s bands get short shrift in the linear narrative (the amazing combo that toured behind “The Grand Wazoo” receives no play, for instance). But they’ll be heartened by those details that do get included, and by the sincere tribute paid. And non-Zappa people may be illuminated and eventually moved.
Not rated. Running time: 2 hours 9 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.