HomeInterviewsSXSW Film Spotlight – 'The World According to Allee Willis' director interview

SXSW Film Spotlight – ‘The World According to Allee Willis’ director interview

As part of our SXSW 2024 Spotlight series, 360°Sound had the pleasure of speaking with Alexis Spraic, director of a new documentary film, The World According to Allee Willis, about the life and work of award-winning songwriter, artist, and set designer Allee Willis. She wrote many memorable songs, like Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September” and “Boogie Wonderland,” “I’ll Be There for You” from the TV show Friends, as well the songs for the Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple. The film gets its world premiere at SXSW.

It’s a fascinating portrait of a woman who began filming her life in 1950s Detroit and never stopped. The film is described as ‘the realization of her wish that her final art piece be someone putting together the trail she left behind.’ That task came to Alexis, who got connected to the project through her friend, the late Paul Rubens (aka PeeWee Herman) who was also Allee’s dear friend. Allee left copious instructions for the filmmaker that would eventually tell her story. Alexis, a 4th generation Angelino, is clearly passionate about this project, Allee’s story, and the LA that Allee inhabited for most of her 72 years.

Please note that this interview has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview at the end of this transcript.

360°Sound: What role did Detroit play in the person Allee Willis was always becoming?

Alexis Spraic: She identified strongly with Detroit. 1950s Detroit was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in America. There was this incredible music scene happening. There were two black [radio] stations that she liked, that were so far at the end of the dial, it almost fell off when you turned it to get to them. There were really iconic DJs out of Detroit, like Martha Jean the Queen. She was discovering black music, not just Motown. When her home life became untenable, she started to escape by driving to Motown and sitting on the lawn, just listening to the music. Now she’s actually part of an exhibit in the Motown museum honoring her. Everything about her you can trace back to Detroit. Her father was the second largest scrap dealer in Detroit, and she spent all this time in junkyards. That’s where she got her taste; she was this incredible, prolific collector of kitsch. She attributed so much of her success in who she was to Detroit.

Allee did a Detroit project late in her life, correct? 

She did. She wrote a song about Detroit, and the idea was to get as many people in Detroit singing on the album – anything from a youth group to a laundromat – and just get everyone to sing the chorus. It’s an incredible production, all these voices together. It’s like she turned the entire city into a musical. She went to the Heidelberg Project and different places that were iconic to her and filmed herself – complete colorful, crazy Allee, being totally out there, and got people dancing and joining this musical. We got to shoot a little bit there with her family, and I did not book a long enough trip – I need to come back.

Did you have the opportunity to speak with Allee when she was alive?

I never met her. I mean, we talked all the time, because she did leave me quite a lot. With Allee’s [kitsch] collection, it speaks to the pathos behind it that her house is so happy. You walk in there, and she’s larger than life – her presence is really strong. There’s a great line in the film from [director] Paul Fieg, where he says, ‘The thing with a great artist is that they never really leave, they just step off the stage and go to the back of the theater and let you enjoy what they’ve left you.’ Her life was a creative expression.

Tell me a little bit about Allee’s narration that’s woven throughout the film. Did that inspire some of the structure of your narrative? Or did you search for stuff to enhance the visual story that you were telling?

I think it’s always a bit of both. We had so much material to work with. It was important to Allee, from what I understood, that you were inside her head – it was a priority to tell it from her point of view. I also think it’s important to put people in the present tense. It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, she wrote “September” with Earth, Wind & Fire.’ But she was not an established songwriter. And so a lot of what I was trying to do is feel the excitement of what she was doing in the moment. I think about how incredible that she rose to that occasion, and wrote the fifth most successful song in the history of music with this huge band. [But] the world won’t always validate you. It’s important, if you have a creative journey, to just try and plow through and validate yourself, and do what you feel you were put on this earth to do.

You got such great contributions from a number of people, and you filmed them in some different, cool locations. Tell me about the process of connecting with the people who contributed and how you decided where to film them.

This was the easiest documentary I’ve ever done, in terms of getting celebrity interviews. People were like, ‘Oh, it’s for Allee? Where do I need to be?’ So that was amazing, because we have people who have very busy schedules – people like Mark Cuban and Cyndi Lauper.  I felt like we got the core people in her life, for the most part. Really fun people, like Jeff Stein who did so many of the iconic music videos in the early days of MTV. There’s this bank of vintage TVs at a really cool place called Valley Relics. It’s very Allee, because it has these huge neon signs. I knew I wanted him in front of those TVs with the static, because he was there to talk about having Allee art direct his music videos.

It was a little bit of a ‘more is more’ aesthetic. And knowing Allee – how much she loved to show people different parts of LA, off the beaten path, kitschy places. I hope when people see the film that they’ll wonder where it is, and maybe consider looking it up and supporting that place. Because those kinds of unique spaces are harder and harder to come by. On weekends, she would just take people – ‘You have to see this place!’

You had the support of Prudence Fenton, Allee’s longtime partner. She’s a very interesting person. How did she help shape the film?

Prudence was her amazing life partner of 28 years. She’s really creative. She did the title sequence for Pee Wee’s Playhouse. She was a producer on [Mtv’s] Liquid Television, and did the animation for Peter Gabriel videos. It doesn’t end with her. When I met Prudence, Allee had not passed away that long before. She was very supportive. Anytime I needed anything, she made it happen. She left every aspect of Allee’s life available to me. She was very hands off, like, ‘This is your film. I’m trusting you. We’ve made that pact and go and do it.’ I was very fortunate – it was a once in a lifetime project to get to work on.

I did pause on the collage Allee gave to Lesley Ann Warren called, Into the Hearts of Millions. There’s such a deep longing there with Allee. What do you think Allee longed for most?

In a superficial sense, she was chasing fame. There’s a line in the film from Charles Phoenix, who’s a historian and humorist of kitsch Americana – ‘She thought fame was love.’ She lost her mother, the cheerleader in her life, and her father didn’t really understand or accept her for who she was. Allee named her first and only album Child Star, and I thought that was about fame. When I interviewed her brother, he said, ‘A lot of it was written to my dad. It was about my dad.’ And I said, ‘Like what?’ And he said, ‘You know, that line in “Child Star,” ‘Did you know I was a child star.’ And it took my breath away, because she was saying to her family, ‘Didn’t you know how unique and special I was? You didn’t see me, but I was.’

Another of your contributors, [writer, director, producer] Michael Patrick King, quotes Van Gogh, ‘Art is, I am seeking, not I have found.’ And he says at another point, ‘Allee was always trying to make what happened to her, part of her – not her part of it.’ Tell me more about Allee as a seeker.

She has a line where she says that she saw a therapist, and this therapist said, ‘Don’t get in another relationship, because the relationship you need to figure out is the one you’re having with yourself.’ A lot of that seeking, it’s letting herself be vulnerable in her relationship with Prudence. I think she really let go of some of the compulsion and that seeking, because she found love. In that sense, the movie is a love story.

‘How do I make what happened to me, part of me – not me part of it,’ that’s the core of the film. She felt profoundly from a young age, especially once sexuality played into it, that she was failing to live up to established gender norms. She has this great line that I hope everyone keeps, ‘If you have a weakness, turn it into a hook.’ She took all of this stuff that was so painful for her – like having a low voice and calling to make dinner reservations at 17 and being mistaken for a man – and she’d make a joke about it, but it’s not funny. She found a way to make herself impossible to miss, with the colors and the style, in the house that she lived in and the cars that she drove. It’s really astounding and inspirational that she found the strength to go [outward] instead of inside herself, which is where most people go when they feel like they don’t fit in.

[Composer] Andrae Alexander says she had to put up a wall and create a safe space, which is an interesting thing to say about this person who filmed her whole life. Is it possible that her story could only truly be told in retrospect, now that she’s not around to keep trying to tell it herself?

That’s what I got out of it. When I’ve talked to Prudence, who fortunately loves the film, she says that there were times when she really wanted to make this film while Allee was alive, but it couldn’t have been the film that we ended up making. In the end, this is the unvarnished film that Allee wanted, and Prudence knew that she wasn’t going to be able to be that raw. There were things in her diaries for Prudence, that Allee left for whoever made the film to read. And there were so many things that she had never told Prudence.

She would tell a great story about her father. He was very disapproving of her love of black culture and black music. She jokes that when he was on his deathbed, the last thing she said to him was that she got the gig to write the the musical The Color Purple, and within an hour he was dead. She shared it in her Songwriters Hall of Fame acceptance speech, and it got the whole room laughing. But when you think about what she’s saying, it’s devastating. To his last dying breath, her father never accepted what she was doing, with all that she accomplished. When her dad started dating, right after her mom died, within a matter of weeks he would leave her at home alone. She’d just lost her mom, and he’d spend the night elsewhere – she would just be by herself. When Allee could package it in a joke, or in a an infectious hook or music line, she’d give it to you. If it was just too tragic, she didn’t do it. I think she definitely wanted people to know, ‘If you’re having a hard time, I see you. And look what I still could do.’

The film ends on a very up note. You include a beautiful line from The Color Purple, ‘Most of all, I’m thankful for loving who I really am.’ It seems really emblematic of the end of her life, as you present it. Do you think that was true for Allee?

It’s complicated. That song, “I’m Here,” from The Color Purple was really about those characters finding love by realizing that they loved each other. And I think Allee’s life – her love story with Prudence – she really did. Prudence has a beautiful line in the film, ‘I think I helped her see the person that I loved.’ And I think that’s true. Unfortunately, she did have a lot more projects and things that were left undone. But absolutely, I think she really did.

She didn’t want to label herself in terms of her sexuality or gender; I think she felt like those were really confining. Now the culture’s shifted and you don’t have to, and we were kind of on the cusp of talking about that in a more mainstream space. But I think she really perceived that. I have her talking about [gender] issues in 1973, ’74. And then, all of a sudden, again in 2018, 2019. I think she found a way to make it enough to just be Allee Willis. You know, it’s always easier to just sort of fit into a neat box that people can understand and wrap their heads around. The way that she resisted doing that her whole life is pretty awesome.

Finally, did Allee Willis visit us from the future?

I always feel that way – she was so ahead of her time. I think she is an icon for the future. Even when you step into her house, it doesn’t feel like something historic – it feels alive. She found a subversive way to be herself. When the film comes out to a wider audience, I really think it’s going to get picked up on, how much she was speaking to the present.

The world premiere of The World According to Allee Willis at SXSW 2024 is Monday, March 11, at 2:45pm at the ZACH Theatre in Austin, Texas. The film will also screen on Tuesday, March 12, at 6:00pm at Rollins Theatre at The Long Center in Austin.

If you live in the Detroit area and want Alexis Spraic to come back to Detroit and host a screening of her film, email me on chris@360degreesound.com

Learn more about the amazing Allee Willis on alleewillis.com


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