Alex Winter found the most excellent surprise in Frank Zappa's personal vault.
The "Bill & Ted" actor-turned-filmmaker worked closely with the late musician's family for the new documentary "Zappa" (in theaters and on demand), which was made from more than 1,000 hours of unseen and unheard material.
"When I went to Zappa's house, he had both of our soundtracks in his cassette collection, which made me very happy," Winter recalls. Zappa's longtime collaborator Steve Vai and son Dweezil Zappa were both featured on "Bill & Ted" albums – meaning Zappa might've been a fan of the sci-fi comedies, too.
"I can't imagine," Winter says with a laugh. "I did not hold out such high hopes, but who knows? I can only hope."
Zappa died in 1993 from prostate cancer at age 52. But the singular composer left behind a rich legacy as one of the most innovative rock musicians of his time, known for blending elements of jazz, pop and classical music with comedic, razor-sharp lyrics. The film explores his work with band the Mothers of Invention, and the creation of some of his most well-known songs, including "The Black Page" and "Valley Girl."
Winter, 55, tells USA TODAY about the documentary and Zappa's impact:
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Question: What was your introduction to Frank Zappa?
Alex Winter: I was a child of the '70s and my older brother played music, so the music was around. I remember watching him on "SNL" and thinking he was a really interesting person who was also very funny, as well as being musically gifted. So he had a pop culture presence in our lives beyond just being a musician, of someone who had an opinion about politics and was very witty. But as I got older, I came to really appreciate him much more substantially and realize that his story was really compelling and worth diving into.
Q: There’s a moment in the film where Alice Cooper says, “I think Frank was afraid to have a hit record. He could’ve, but he sabotaged” them. Do you agree with that assessment?
Winter: Yes and no. I don't think Zappa was a commercial artist. So I don't think he was sabotaging out of insecurity, I just think his agenda was more of a really avant-garde composer than a rock musician. To him, the idea of hits was vaguely distasteful. It was anathema to his own art. So if he felt a work was getting too overtly commercial, he would break it up a little bit so that it retained the internal integrity that he wanted for it.
Q: Before this documentary, I wasn't aware just how doggedly Zappa fought against censorship, even testifying in the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) Senate hearing in 1985. What are some of the most important strides he made in that area?
Winter: He and the very small handful of people who actually bothered to show up to that hearing are responsible for preventing art from being censored, meaning not allowing music to be heard or distributed. The compromise they struck, which is really 100% thanks to Zappa, eventually became this advisory warning label on the albums of that time. So he was very instrumental in helping artists keep their ability to communicate and make their art. It was interesting because it wasn't even his albums that were being threatened. He was so disturbed by the direction he saw the country going that he really felt compelled to fight, which is unique for a pop culture artist who was an upper-middle-class guy who certainly didn't need to pick that battle.
Q: “Joe’s Garage,” arguably his most famous album, is essentially a two-hour rock opera about free speech and fascist governments, told in a playfully profane way. Do you think that album resonates just as much or even more so now?
Winter: It's timeless because it's great music, and societies always struggle against fascism or authoritarianism. He was writing at a time when there was a very authoritarian government in the U.S. and in the Western world, period. We had (Presidents) Reagan and Bush here, and (Prime Minister Margaret) Thatcher in the U.K. He was writing about timeless oppression, but it is certainly very striking at this exact moment in our history. I find my older kids are really gravitating toward a lot of his message and what he has to say, and find a lot in it that relates to their experience.
Q: How has Zappa inspired you personally as an artist?
Winter: The thing about Zappa I've always loved is that he had this infinite curiosity that did not get hampered by a fear of commercial response, critical response, or understanding even. I never really thought of him as someone who was doing that for shock value or to be irreverent. In my whole career, I've done so many different types of things, but it's always been in pursuit of trying to get a better understanding of my voice artistically or something that I'm trying to convey. And I find him very inspiring in that way. There's a real honesty to his artistic approach. He made a commitment to live a certain kind of life. That commitment had some very heavy consequences for him, and yet he just kept going and kept experimenting.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Zappa': Frank Zappa documentary reveals fight against censorship