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The World According to Allee Willis | Documentary film directed by Alexis Spraic

The World According to Allee Wi (Documentary film director Alexis Spraic)
Photo: Bonnie Schiffman
The World According to Allee Willis (Documentary film director Alexis Spraic)_Frameline48 Film Festival 2024

Earth Wind & Fire’s “September” - within the first handful of notes – crosses all ages, generations, races, cultures, genders, no-genders, everyone knows it.

That larger-than-huge hit (and there are many more) serve as a point of entry into the artistry and kaleidoscope world that is Allee Willis’ life. The hits are like sparkling gems. Upon further examination, the many facets reveal a multi-layered, nuanced, complex human being. Preternaturally talented, Willis seemed to live in a world that maybe was not ready for her and all her way-ahead-of-her time creations.

Now meet Allee Willis, through the lens of Director Alexis Spraic and Willis herself.

Allee Willis was born in 1947 in Detroit, Michigan. Many artists native to the Motor City give it credit for their introduction to soul music – from the blues to gospel to jazz to R&B – then came Motown. Radio ruled, television was the next big thing. Willis heard the music and instantly locked into the frequency and wavelength of Motown. Check out “The D”, Willis’ project of love to her hometown.

Willis wore many hats (of many colors!) and often contributed more than lyrics to her projects. Yet with songwriting and composing credits ranging from “September” & “Boogie Wonderland”, to the Friends television show theme, to the Tony Award-winning musical The Color Purple (and countless others), she would still find herself fulfilling many roles with no formal credit, acknowledgment or respect. This could be said of her frequent role as producer, and a much-desired, albeit elusive, career as an artist. Perhaps the music world/industry was not ready for someone at her level of creative talent and technical abilities. Her art, talent and life defy time and space.

Willis’ vast and storied career is well-documented – by her. Many of the most compelling and revealing moments of the film is the self-documented footage. At 20,000 hours, the sheer volume is impressive as is the Director’s ability to select footage and weave Allee’s intricate story. Decades before YouTube, TikTok, and the internet, she was early to adopt filming, writing down and keeping EVERYTHING. Allee was her own social network years before the term was coined.

In her personal life, Willis met Prudence Fenton. Fenton is also a highly successful, award-winning creative visualist, writer, and visionary. Works include Peter Gabriel videos,  Pee Wee’s Playhouse, MTV (early ID visuals and later programming Liquid Television - including introducing Beavis & Butt-Head to the world). Fenton continues with her role as Founder of the Willis Wonderland Foundation, whose mission is to amplify the songwriters of the next generation.

Willis and Fenton were life partners for 28 years. To describe their meeting as serendipitous would bely the authentic life that they created together. A place Willis could live in, while weathering through the ebb and flow of her more public career and life. Fenton and Willis complemented each other - kindred spirits and soulmates.

Film director Alexis Spraic was introduced to the film project by mutual friend Paul Reuben (Pee Wee Herman). Spraic stepped into Willis’ shoes to share Willis’ vision with the world and future generations of artists. Spraic’s film is informative, revealing, and beautiful. It is like a living, breathing project on many levels, whether to inspire any artists, people who have felt unseen/unheard professionally and personally, or those who can feel they simply don’t fit in. Be fearless. Allee sees and hears you.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)

What was your approach to the project, initial reactions, and journey during the process of making the film? 

In the world of documentary, a lot of what you decide is what lends itself to a documentary film – is the material there? And it was, without question! But there was so much material. It was part of Allee’s vision – she had this idea that she wanted someone to put together the story. My initial reaction was that it was overwhelming and exciting.

I think the question I had – because she was such an incredible artist and sort of jack of all trades, is why she didn’t want to do it herself - why she was leaving that to someone posthumously. She could have done it – there is no question! And I felt like that was important in making the film and understanding why I was making the film, to answer that question. And it turned out it really did guide the film - that there was a there - there.

If Allee might have felt like an outsider, possessing a more DIY, no-labels sensibility, it’s such a contrast that her songwriting lyrically is so mainstream.

That’s where I think her real gift was. That’s where she really connected with people as she had real intense friendships. For her, anything you were experiencing emotionally in your life – she was so empathic, in tune with how to articulate feelings– so she could take something so specific (sometimes) from her experience and make it feel universal.

I think that’s why with the Friends TV theme song, or “I’m Here” from The Color Purple – any of these songs - it’s why they have these massive audiences – she just knew how to speak truth.

What did you learn about Allee?

With Allee, when you just look at the image of her, you have her collections, and the world she created - Willis Wonderland. She’s this beacon of self-acceptance, not afraid of anything, she’s so larger than life. In her lifetime, she really wanted to be that, and live up to that. But underneath it – what we really discovered through her archives was much more, there so much untold material. It was so courageous of Allee to leave it to be discovered.

I think what Allee really wanted was for people to see the other side of it. She made this promise and commitment to herself to be this authentic artist, to live this unfettered life, and to not kowtow to what society told her she should be or reject herself. But it was really hard, it was a struggle, and I don’t know in her lifetime how she knew how to be that beacon, and also convey the struggle. I think the film for her was a way of marrying that.

All of Allee’s big breaks came from women and people of color. Patti LaBelle was the first to bring Allee in on her projects, she flew Allee to SF in 1978 (the first of Allee’s SF Bay Area connections including Herbie Hancock, Pointer Sisters, Narada Michael Walden).

Given all that Allee left behind and the scope of this film, what was your takeaway, what would you like people to know?

Allee had a lot more she was planning to do with time, her life.

What I love about the film is that afterwards, it gives you the ability to put on Allee-colored glasses, and see the world a little bit more. She gives you permission to be just a little more extra, to take chances in a different way. Be happy, invigorated, vibrant, alive.

Explore all the links.  Find your own voice and journey.  Let Allee inspire you.

The World According to Allee Willis screens Thurs. 6/27/24 at the Herbst Theatre in SF, as featured in this year’s Frameline48 Film Festival.
Purchase tickets at:

Magnolia Films just acquired the North American rights to the film. Look out for the film in a wide release.

Listen to the Allee Willis Playlist on Spotify

Frameline48 Film Festival_The World According to Allee Willis
Courtesy The World According to Allee Willis
Frameline48 Film Festival_The World According to Allee Willis