1991 in Prague, and the cult rock musician Frank Zappa takes the stage to perform his final guitar performance in public. He did not know it would be, it's just that illness overtook him and he found his focus shifted to different projects, but all the way through his life he had been obsessed with the perfect expression of the music he could hear in his head. He had grown up in small town America, his father worked at the local chemical plant which necessitated the presence of gasmasks in every home in case there was a leak, and music had not been a big part of his upbringing. However, once he heard the blues, and the experimental efforts of Edgard Varese, there would be no stopping him as he took to making his own music with the zeal of the convert...
This was a documentary directed by Alex Winter, probably the highest profile film in that vein though he had been making these for some years before he was given access to Zappa's film and video archive to build a biography out of, indeed before he made a comeback in Bill & Ted Face the Music he had given up acting to concentrate on this sort of thing. For the purists, you imagine nothing about Zappa not made by Zappa himself would ever satisfy, yet Winter was a purist himself, and though this was no hagiography you could see the obvious respect he had for his subject, and that of his interviewees, who numbered Zappa's wife Gail, guitarist Steve Vai and Alice Cooper, a different rock star given a leg up by the musician to help establish himself in the early days.
Mostly it was the musicians who worked with him who cropped up to discuss him with all his dedication and arrogance, but actually the bulk of this was musings from the man himself, for he was keen to record as much of his own thoughts as he was to record his music. When he died at fifty-three in 1993, there was nobody saying he did not have a life well-lived, but there was also a sense that he had more to do: a move into politics as a third-party candidate would have been on the cards, though presumably with Ralph Nader levels of achievement. But the music would be his legacy, no matter that he resisted commercial success - or rather, he resisted mainstream success, for he was a shrewd businessman and knew how to market his output to turn a handsome profit from it once he was out from under the yoke of the record companies and running things to his satisfaction.
Winter had a lot to fit in, and the running time was still over two hours even with the fans asking, "But what about...?" There were the formative days hanging out with Captain Beefheart listening to blues platters, forming The Mothers of Invention which established the cult following he rarely broke out of, mostly by choice, the attack in London that temporarily disabled him and caused him to rethink his career, the near-endless touring of the seventies and eighties, the dabbling in film (patronising animator Bruce Brickford whose astounding creations became linked with the music), and so on into the eighties when he became the prominent spokesperson for musicians resistant to censorship of their efforts (when those with most to lose mysteriously stayed quiet). Then there was the classical material, which produced his last ever concert, here a poignant finale to the doc; if anything, we could have heard more tunes, though that would have extended the film even further. If there was a problem, it might have fallen between the two stools of diehards and newcomers, but if you were neither, there was much to absorb.