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Actor/Director Alex Winter Talks New Frank Zappa Documentary, 'Zappa': "It Was The Full Complexity Of The Man I Wanted To Show"

Frank Zappa in Zappa, a Magnolia Pictures release

Photo: Roelof Kiers/Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

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Actor/Director Alex Winter Talks New Frank Zappa Documentary, 'Zappa': "It Was The Full Complexity Of The Man I Wanted To Show"

For the film, Winter and his team combed through more than 1,000 hours of footage to capture the complicated essence of one of the most groundbreaking rock experimentalists

GRAMMYs/Dec 31, 2020 - 01:13 am

Few 20th-century musicians have amassed as unique and influential a catalog as two-time GRAMMY winner Frank Zappa. Between the late 1960s and the early 1990s, Zappa's multifaceted artistry knew no bounds. He was a one-of-a-kind musical genius whose attitude and approach rubbed off on countless creative followers.

Of course, he was far more than that, too. As the recent documentary Zappa lays out, the singer/songwriter and composer was an adamant denouncer of censorship, which led to him morally testifying before the U.S. Senate in 1985, as well as a fearless critic of social, spiritual, and political hypocrisies. Plus, his collaborators and loved ones knew him as a highly demanding yet devoted bandleader and a flawed but loving family man.

There were many professional and personal dimensions of Zappa, and the actor-documentarian Alex Winter—best-known as the amiable, peace-loving goofball Ted Logan in the Bill & Ted film franchise—did an exceptional job capturing it all. Zappa, which arrived in theaters and on-demand last month, provides the most heartfelt and robust examination of the man on film to date.

Winter and his crew could have been overwhelmed by the sheer amount of footage available to them—more than 1,000 hours, to hear him tell it. However, his goal to spin a compelling yarn for a universal audience rather than create a footage-dump for superfans kept him focused.  "It was important for us to tell a certain story," Winter tells GRAMMY.com. "We found so much great stuff that [spoke] to his inner life. It motivated us to stay on track."

GRAMMY.com spoke with Winter about what sparked his interest in telling Zappa's story and why Zappa's legacy endures almost 30 years after his untimely death.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Let's begin by discussing how you discovered Zappa. What are your favorite songs or albums by him?

I first became aware of him on Saturday Night Live. I have an older brother [Stephen] who's a musician, so I knew the music. As I got older, I became much more appreciative of his music, especially the expansiveness of it. That fact that he wasn't just a rock guitar player or even just a rock musician.

As for specific records, [1969's] Hot Rats had the biggest impact on me, and then I came to love his orchestral music, such as [1993's] The Yellow Shark.

Those are great ones! What attracted you to making this documentary?

I was interested in who he was as an artist and his relationship to his art, his fellow artists, and the politics of the time. It was the full complexity of the man I wanted to show—more than just a standard music documentary or a standard cradle-to-grave biopic.

That's one of the best aspects of Zappa: it even appeals to people who aren't necessarily fans of his. There's a lot of pathos to it, with sadness beneath the happier aspects.

Yeah, I mean, his life was tragic in that he died so prematurely [in 1993, from prostate cancer]. He faced the consequences for living as he did, and the film tries to chart the ups and downs of his life in that way. It's not just a celebration but also an examination of what it means to be an artist.

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You also interviewed former Zappa musicians who express that he was a bit of a tough leader at times, but that's what was needed to get the band to perform properly.

Right. I wanted to get at the root of what was—not unfairly, but maybe superficially, a reputation he had for being a martinet. I had a suspicion that the artists I would speak to would paint a more comprehensive picture of how he was. 

I was so grateful for those interviews and for having a sense of a man who had a very specific vision, yes, but who also was extremely collaborative with his fellow musicians, with his family, and with his audience. He was very curious about a broader view and working with others.

I didn't have a problem getting to people, either, and I only wanted people I felt were able to speak vehemently about having worked with Zappa and experiencing his inner life.

Zappa is far from your first documentary. What did you learn from doing those prior films that influenced this one? How was making Zappa a different process?

There was an aspect of this far beyond anything I'd done before: the sheer amount of media that we had to work with. We had to preserve a lot of the media that was in Zappa's home. Then, we had to go through all that media [laughs] and figure out what we wanted to use.

We benefited from doing a preservation project to get that media into shape, which took us a couple of years. It allowed us to figure out exactly what to choose. I think that at least 98 percent of the archival footage we used has never been seen or heard before.

Oh, wow.

There was an exhaustive process of rebuilding things to make them coherent. Sometimes, we'd find a piece a film from one time and then search for the right sound and sync it up somehow. Some of that took years, and it was like finding the Holy Grail when we finally located the proper audio for a piece of visual that we wanted to use. It's been an extraordinary journey, to put it mildly [laughs].

From what I understand, the Zappa family—and especially his late wife, Gail—were very private and particular about who would get access to the archives, vaults, et cetera. I'm sure other people have tried to see and hear those things before but couldn't. I wonder what led to you being able to look through all of that.

Well, I pitched Gail a way of telling the story, and she just happened to like it. Many people had come to her asking to make much more standard music docs or legacy docs about Frank, sort of ignoring the broader spectrum of who he was and what he represented.

I was only interested in telling a story about him as an artist and as a man pitted against his time, dealing with the consequences of committing to living a particular life. That's what she wanted someone to tell. I didn't know that when I pitched her, so I was glad. I expected her to tell me to get lost, to be honest with you.

I guess it's all about the angle of the story.

She was notoriously a tough cookie, and I knew that going in. There was a good chance that she wasn't going to like what I wanted to do. That would've been fine. It would've been twenty minutes out of my life instead of six years.

Frank Zappa in Zappa, a Magnolia Pictures release | Photo: Roelof Kiers/Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

What were some of the most surprising things that you learned about him? What did you have to cut?

We had the mandate to tell a very specific story, and that gave us parameters. It helped us weed out the stuff that didn't fit. We had over 1,000 hours of unseen and unheard media; we could've made a 10-part series, no problem. I wasn't distracted by it, though. Mike Nichols, the editor, and I were pretty determined to craft a very coherent narrative, so we didn't worry about many of the media we had. Let it get used by the next people who come along. [Laughs].

Have you discovered any bands that are inspired by Zappa?

Oh, there are so many, from classical musicians to pop and rock musicians. Artists like Beck, “Weird Al" Yankovic and Weezer. The list could just go on and on. There aren't too many popular bands who don't have a Zappa influence, even if they don't know it. Also, a lot of avant-garde composers.

Zappa had one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in history. How has the reception been so far?

The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. It's a film that I wanted to see out in the world, and I believe that Zappa's story was extraordinary and untold. I was hopeful that others would want to see it, too.

I was never a fanatic—more just a fan. This movie is aimed at anyone who likes an interesting and compelling story. That was the gamble we took when we set out to make it, and I couldn't be happier with how it's being received. 

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

Rotimi

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Rotimi On Performing At ESSENCE Fest, Growing Up African-American & More

The Nigerian-American singer and actor sat down with the Recording Academy to talk about what inspired his latest album, 'Walk With Me'

GRAMMYs/Jul 8, 2019 - 10:04 pm

In 2015, Rotimi stepped into the New Orleans Superdome for the first time to experience the magic of ESSENCE Fest. Four years later, in 2019, the "Love Riddim" singer returned to the celebration as a performer, something he said was spoken into existence.

"Last year me and my manager had a conversation and I said, 'Listen, I'm going to be on the [ESSENCE] mainstage this year. 365 days later, we did it," Rotimi told the Recording Academy at the 25th annual ESSENCE Fest.

Rotimi, also an actor on Starz' "Power," has evolved since his last album, 2017's Jeep Music, Vol.1. The singer said he really hit home with its follow-up, the recently released Walk With Me, a project he worked hard for, putting in hours in the studio after filming on set.

"Walk With Me is the first time I actually felt like I was giving myself as an artist, and personally I feel like with everything else I have going on I wanted to show people that this is really what I do," he said. "I wanted people to understand who Rotimi is, who Rotimi was before, who I want to be and just understand my growth and the journey and my passion for what I do."

Part of why the album felt like such a representation of him is because it embodies beats of his African roots, something he said was very present growing up Nigerian-American. 

"I grew up with a lot of Fela Kuti and I grew up with Bob Marley," he said of his musical roots. "But I also grew up with Carl Thomas and Genuine and Usher, so there was a genuine mixture of who I am and what I've grown up to listen to. The actual Walk With Me project was a mixture of influences of Akon and Craig David."

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

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Find Out Who's Nominated For Best Rap Album | 2020 GRAMMY Awards

Dreamville, Meek Mill, 21 Savage, Tyler, The Creator, and YBN Cordae all earn nominations in the category

GRAMMYs/Nov 20, 2019 - 06:28 pm

The 2020 GRAMMYs are just around the corner, and now the nominations are in for the coveted honor of Best Rap Album. While we'll have to wait until the 62nd GRAMMY Awards air on CBS on Jan. 26 to find out who will win, let's take a look at which albums have been nominated for Best Rap Album.

Revenge of the Dreamers III – Dreamville                                                                        

 
This star-studded compilation album from 11-time GRAMMY nominee J. Cole and his Dreamville Records imprint features appearances from some of the leading and fastest-rising artists in hip-hop today, including label artists EARTHGANG, J.I.D, and Ari Lennox, plus rappers T.I, DaBaby, and Young Nudy, among many others. Recorded in Atlanta across a 10-day recording session, Revenge of the Dreamers III is an ambitious project that saw more than 300 artists and producers contribute to the album, resulting in 142 recorded tracks. Of those recordings, 18 songs made the final album, which ultimately featured contributions from 34 artists and 27 producers.

Dreamers III, the third installment in the label’s Revenge of the Dreamers compilation series, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and achieved gold status this past July. In addition to a Best Rap Album nod, Dreamers III is also nominated for Best Rap Performance next year for album track “Down Bad,” featuring J.I.D, Bas, J. Cole, EARTHGANG, and Young Nudy.

Championships – Meek Mill

In many ways, Championships represents a literal and metaphorical homecoming for Meek Mill. Released in November 2018, Championships is the Philadelphia rapper’s first artist album following a two-year prison sentence he served after violating his parole in 2017. Championships, naturally, sees Meek tackling social justice issues stemming from his prison experience, including criminal justice reform. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, his second chart-topper following 2015’s Dreams Worth More Than Money, and reached platinum status in June 2019. Meek Mill's 2020 Best Rap Album nod marks his first-ever GRAMMY nomination.

i am > i was – 21 Savage

Breakout rapper and four-time GRAMMY nominee 21 Savage dropped i am > i was, his second solo artist album, at the end of 2018. The guest-heavy album, which features contributions from Post Malone, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, and many others, has since charted around the world, topped the Billboard 200 – a first for the artist – in the beginning of 2019, and achieved gold status in the U.S. As well, nine songs out of the album’s 15 original tracks landed on the Hot 100 chart, including multi-platinum lead single “A Lot,” which is also nominated for Best Rap Song next year. 21 Savage’s 2020 Best Rap Album nomination, which follows Record of the Year and Best Rap/Sung Performance nods for his 2017 Post Malone collaboration, "Rockstar,” marks his first solo recognition in the top rap category.

IGOR – Tyler, The Creator

The eccentric Tyler, The Creator kicked off a massive 2019 with his mid-year album, IGOR. Released this past May, IGOR, Tyler’s fifth solo artist album, is his most commercially successful project to date. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, marking his first time topping the coveted chart, while its lead single, "Earfquake,” peaked at No. 13, his highest entry on the Hot 100. Produced in full by Tyler and featuring guest spots from fellow rap and R&B stars Kanye West, Lil Uzi Vert, Solange, and Playboi Carti, among many others, IGOR follows the rapper’s 2017 album, Flower Boy, which received the Best Rap Album nod that same year.

The Lost Boy – YBN Cordae

Emerging rapper YBN Cordae, a member of the breakout YBN rap collective, released his debut album, The Lost Boy, to widespread critical acclaim this past July. The 15-track release is stacked with major collaborations with hip-hop heavyweights, including Anderson .Paak, Pusha T, Meek Mill, and others, plus production work from J. Cole and vocals from Quincy Jones. After peaking at No. 13 on the Billboard 200, The Lost Boy now notches two 2020 GRAMMY nominations: Best Rap Album and Best Rap Song for album track “Bad Idea,” featuring Chance the Rapper.

Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Brittany Howard

Photo: C Brandon/Redferns/Getty Images

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Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz & More Join Small Business Live Benefit Livestream

Proceeds from the event will be go toward loans to small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses, via Accion Opportunity Fund

GRAMMYs/Jun 16, 2020 - 04:13 am

This Saturday, June 20, artists including Brittany Howard, Brandi Carlile, Leon Bridges, 2 Chainz and more will come together for Small Business Live, a livestream fundraiser event for small businesses facing challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Proceeds from the livestream will go to Accion Opportunity Fund to support small businesses founded by people of color, with additional support to women-owned and immigrant-owned businesses.

“Entrepreneurs of color are denied credit more often and charged higher rates for money they borrow to fund their businesses. We need to accelerate support to underserved businesses in order to reach our full potential,” Accion Opportunity Fund CEO Luz Urrutia said. “We have to decide what we want our Main Streets to look like when this is over, and we must act decisively to keep small businesses alive and ready to rebuild. This is a fun way to do something really important. Everyone’s support will make a huge difference to small business owners, their families and employees who have been devastated by this pandemic, the recession, and centuries of racism, xenophobia and oppression.”

Tune in for Small Business Live Saturday, June 20 from 4:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. EDT on smallbiz.live. The site also provides a full schedule of programs and links to watch the livestream on all major digital platforms. To learn more about Accion Opportunity Fund, visit the organization's website.

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Samantha Smith and John Legend

Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle And John Legend Win Best Rap/Sung Performance For "Higher" | 2020 GRAMMYs

DJ Khaled, Nipsey Hussle and John Legend take home Best Rap/Sung Performance at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Jan 27, 2020 - 09:05 am

DJ Khaled, featuring Nipsey Hussle and John Legend, has won Best Rap/Sung Performance for "Higher" at the 62nd GRAMMY Awards. The single was featured on DJ Khaled's 2019 album Father of Asahd and featured Hussle's vocals and Legend on the piano. DJ Khaled predicted the track would win a GRAMMY.

"I even told him, 'We're going to win a GRAMMY.' Because that's how I feel about my album," DJ Khaled told Billboard. "I really feel like not only is this my biggest, this is very special."

After the release of the song and music video -- which was filmed before Hussle's death in March -- DJ Khaled announced all proceeds from "Higher" will go to Hussle's children.

DJ Khaled and co. beat out fellow category nominees Lil Baby & Gunna ("Drip Too Hard"), Lil Nas X ("Panini"), Mustard featuring Roddy Ricch ("Ballin") and Young Thug featuring J. Cole & Travis Scott ("The London"). Hussle earned a second posthumous award at the 62nd GRAMMYs for Best Rap Performance for "Racks In The Middle." 

Along with Legend and DJ Khaled, Meek Mill, Kirk Franklin, Roddy Ricch and YG paid tribute to Hussle during the telecast, which concluded with "Higher."

Check out the complete 62nd GRAMMY Awards nominees and winners list here.