A Clockwork Purple

How Prince's revolution was won--and where it got him

Occurring a short half-hour into Purple Rain, this naked display of vulnerability and despair might well be the first major emotional stretch of Prince's career--and, if you're feeling cynical, the peak of it as well.

 

If complete control has long seemed Prince's reigning ambition and ironic reward, then total desperation--expressed in those rare moments prior to the gaining of said control--has always been the most compelling of his ever-changing moods. You can hear it in some of his greatest songs since Purple Rain: "She's Always in My Hair," a tightly wound spring of Beatlesesque psychedelia that curls into a dense mix of desire and rage; "If I Was Your Girlfriend," in which the singer imagines himself as his lover's other (lesbian?) lover but still can't score; "Cindy C.," working out a weird funk stemming from the artist's dismay that a supermodel might have set her sights elsewhere; and "The Question of U," an electric-blues cri de coeur that, in the context of Prince's diminishing audience circa 1990, seems rightly anxious to know what, if anything, The Kid can do to get "U" back ("Should I remain upright/Or get down and crawl?").

That all of these were deemed, by the artist or the marketplace or both, to be unfit for radio is a crying shame, because their honest, unflattering depictions of self-inflicted psychosexual torture convey precisely what distinguishes Prince's music from, say, the Time's. Nevertheless, the project of Purple Rain--the album for Prince, and the movie's narrative for The Kid--is to bring the artist out of this dark funk. (Prince would conveniently recapitulate this plot four years later, claiming to have withheld the bitter "Black Album" in favor of Lovesexy's "positivity.") As the film's bottom-line-minded club manager (Billy Sparks) puts it: "The stage is no place for your personal shit, man." Thus Purple Rain strategically DJs Prince's own diverse tunes so as to chart The Kid's triumphant progression from dirty-mindedness ("Darling Nikki") to universality ("Purple Rain") and tireless commitment ("I Would Die 4 U"), whereupon he's reborn, miraculously, unto commercial omnipotence ("Baby I'm a Star").

In some ways, this "emotional autobiography" is also the archetypal Eighties story: "I don't wanna stop until I reach the top," proclaims the artist in "Baby I'm a Star." But what's rarer about The Kid is his eventual desire to give up control--or at least the appearance of it--by playing "Purple Rain," a song co-written by his Revolution bandmates Wendy (Wendy Melvoin) and Lisa (Lisa Coleman). So--now what Time is it? That Morris and Co.'s high-steppin' jungle-love jams are characterized in the film, obliquely and otherwise, as "black" makes the essence of Prince's spiritual crossover--learning to consider others, but white women in particular--that much more plain. "I only wanted 2 see u laughing in the purple rain," sings The Kid, his wish fulfilled by approving gazes from clubgoers of all colors.

Race matters aside, not even Purple Rain's press materials could be mistaken about the film's true story. "The product of an unhappy home," claimed the plot summary, "Prince"--who probably should have been identified as "The Kid" in this instance--"escapes from his despondency by turning the basement of his parents' home into a protective environment which he can control." Yes, control--and the press kit also made sure to report that what Prince really wanted next was to direct.

If it's clearly The Kid and not Prince who surrenders his autonomy in Purple Rain (the end credits remind us that, in the real Revolution, the title track was authored entirely by the bandleader), the movie still represents more than just a propagandistic ode to the artist's people skills. It's also, arguably, Prince's finest hour, and without a doubt the last time he'd willingly submit to someone else's vision--in this case, director Albert Magnoli's. If every subsequent disappointment, from Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge to Glam Slam, the New Power Generation superstores, and the unrenewed Warners contract, can be traced on some level to this one insistence on rule by royalty, the current question 4 U, Prince, becomes this: Are U, 4 example, still on speaking terms with Spike Lee?

 

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