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Play It Again, Tim: Greta, Zappa subjects of first-rate new docs

Tim Miller
Tim Miller
Written by Tim Miller

Let’s say you’re a teenager. You think the planet is dying, the end is near and nobody is doing anything about it. So you decide to wake up the world.

That’s the situation depicted in “I Am Greta” (97 minutes, not rated, available on Hulu), Nathan Grossman’s moving documentary about teenage climate-activist Greta Thunberg.



Odds are you’ve at least heard of her. She was, among many other things, Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2019. In a little over a year, she went from a 15-year-old Swedish girl staging a one-person school strike for the climate in front of the Swedish Parliament to an international phenomenon who had met the pope, spoke before the United Nations and inspired a global movement for climate control.

Greta Thunberg in “I Am Greta.” (Hulu)

Greta Thunberg in “I Am Greta.” (Hulu)

Grossman’s camera is there to record much of this. What emerges is a poignant portrait of a serious, highly intelligent young girl with Asperger Syndrome whose determination, sincerity and courage inspire others to take up the cause.

It’s not easy for her. The pressure placed on her would likely crush most adults, and there are moments when she appears overwhelmed by it all. She is dismissed if not scorned by some world leaders (including a certain U.S. president). She receives death threats. But she perseveres — not for fame or attention, but because she believes it’s the right thing to do.

Grossman doesn’t provide much evidence to back up Greta’s claims. That would be for another movie (like one that’s already been made: 2006’s “An Inconvenient Truth”). This is more about the emergence of a leader, one who, more often than not, will leave you choked up with admiration.

Forget Thor or Iron Man or Black Widow. You want to see a superhero movie? Check out “I Am Greta.” ****

Also new

I never really got into Frank Zappa or his music. I’m not sure why. I remember first seeing him with his band, the Mothers of Invention on a local Detroit TV dance show — I believe it was in 1966, when I was 11 — and thinking of Zappa and the Mothers as a novelty act, not to be taken seriously. As I got older, though I was always aware of Zappa, I never gave him nearly the attention I gave Cream, or Hendrix, or Rod Stewart in his prime, or so many others.

So, for me, the documentary “Zappa” (129 minutes, not rated, available on demand) provides a welcome addition to my musical education. He wasn’t just a novelty act (as his ardent admirers would no doubt be quick to tell you), but an avant-garde composer who transcended labels such as “pop,” “rock” and “jazz” to create music all his own.

Frank Zappa in “Zappa.” (Roelof Kiers/Magnolia Pictures)

Frank Zappa in “Zappa.” (Roelof Kiers/Magnolia Pictures)

Director Alex Winter, a longtime documentary filmmaker best known as Bill in the “Bill & Ted” stoner comedies, provides a fascinating overview of the life and work of Zappa, who died at 52 from prostate cancer in 1993. Winter packs a lot of biographical information into the film, along with many vintage interviews with Zappa himself, and more recent interviews with his family and fellow musicians. Among other things, Zappa is shown to be a resolute individualist; a workaholic who was an aloof, demanding boss to his band members; and an outspoken critic of efforts to limit freedom of expression.

Zappa aficionados probably would like to see more; the film could use more concert footage, more of Zappa’s music to give us an even clearer picture of him as a performer and artist. A Zappa miniseries might not be a bad idea.

But Winter deserves a lot of credit for what he squeezes into 129 minutes. It’s likely his film will inspire many moviegoers to take a closer look back at Zappa and his music. ***½


Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He and music producer Tony Raine host “Tim ’n’ Tony’s Rock ’n’ Pop Show” from midnight to 3 a.m. Sunday nights/Monday mornings on WOMR (92.1-FM), WFMR (91.3-FM) and womr.org. Those who aren’t night owls will find archived recordings of the shows at https://womr.org/schedule/broadcast-archive/. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic.

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About the author

Tim Miller

Tim Miller

Tim Miller, a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics, was the Cape Cod Times film critic for nearly 36 years. A Detroit native (and hardcore Tigers fan), he’s been obsessed with movies since skipping school in 1962 to see “Lawrence of Arabia” with his parents when he was 7. Miller earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his master’s from Suffolk University, where he taught film and journalism for 10 years. He continues to teach film at Curry College and Cape Cod Community College. He is a juror each year for the short-film competition of the Martha’s Vineyard International Film Festival, has moderated several panel discussions at the Woods Hole Film Festival and frequently is heard as a guest on Cape & Islands NPR station WCAI. His work appeared as a chapter in the book “John Sayles: Interviews.” His favorite movie is Cameron Crowe's “Almost Famous” – because it makes him feel good to be alive.

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