A Clockwork Purple

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

Paint a perfect picture/Bring 2 life a vision in one's mind.
--Prince, "The Beautiful Ones"

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Purple Rain--the Citizen Kane of Minnesota movies and a worldwide showcase for the ascendance of its then-26-year-old star into rock 'n' roll eternity. Ladies and gentlemen...the revolution.

When this lurid, riveting, high-pitched tale of "a brilliant but struggling young musician" (per the original press kit) began shooting at First Avenue and 31 other Twin Cities locations in November 1983, Prince hadn't yet conquered Reagan's white-bread America. Back then, he was still an ambiguous androgyne who sang in a discomfiting falsetto about doing his sister; a musical genius who had, as his album sleeves touted, "produced, arranged, composed and performed" nearly every note on a handful of increasingly visionary LPs; and a hot property who, having just sold two million copies of 1999, seemed infinitely worthy of Warner Bros.' $7 million investment in a big-screen vehicle. By the time it was released nine months later, Purple Rain (screening Wednesday in Stevens Square Park), following closely on the heels of the fastest-selling single in a decade ("When Doves Cry"), found Prince and Minneapolis as the Caligula and ancient Rome of a new, interracial pop world. In this, the artist's "emotional autobiography" (its working title was Dreams) didn't so much reflect "the Minneapolis scene" as "paint a perfect picture" of it in Technicolor. As a result, more than a few of the Bic-wavers who made the pilgrimage to First Avenue in 1984 and '85 were made to wonder, "So--where are all the black people?"

Still, if representation can be the next best thing to reality (and sometimes a precursor to it), Prince can indeed be credited with starting a revolution--even if the Purple Rain project was essentially a masturbatory one, made manifest by the film's penultimate money shot of the Purple One shooting a copious, creamy load from his ax-cum-squirt gun. Befitting a radical movement led by royalty, the movie introduces our guitar-slinging, trench-coat-clad, purple-Harley-riding hero onstage, preaching to the converted ("Dearly beloved...") before an MTV-inspired flashback finds him primping in front of a backstage mirror. Whatever one thought of Prince's colossal arrogance in 1984, it was hardly unearned: Prodigious songcraft aside, here was a man who, during "Let's Go Crazy," for example, could pound out a piano part with his foot, leap from the keyboard and do the splits in midair, land, grab the mic, pant three times on the beat, twirl 360 degrees, kick both (high) heels, land again, and hit the next riff on his six-string--all in less than ten seconds.

But despite such stupefying talent, Prince's The Kid is deeply conflicted, you see--a moody workaholic from an abusive family, a control-freak loner with a Messiah complex ("I would die 4 u"), and a jealous lover who finds threats to his authority both onstage and off. Not that the artist was wholly neurotic: Even paranoids have enemies. As Vanity Fair put it in '84, "Prince has created a complicated sexual theater in the heart of Mondale country." Indeed, near the end of a six-month gold rush that saw the Strib publish no fewer than 43 articles on Purple Rain and/or its star, the office of Rudy Perpich was receiving a hundred calls per day in protest of the governor's opportunistic Christmas-week proclamation of "Prince Days" (coinciding with the artist's unprecedented five-show stand at the St. Paul Civic Center). "You don't have to be a nut or a feminist, or even a Christian," wrote the Strib's inimitable Jim Klobuchar, "to wonder what the state of Minnesota is doing bestowing its official benedictions on an erotic entertainer during a week when a lot of people are trying to hold onto the vanishing strands of reverence in Christmas." God help us! Evidently fearing 1999, Klobuchar may not have realized that, pace John Lennon, Prince's star had already eclipsed Bethlehem's.

Among its many sacrileges, Purple Rain makes good on Controversy's promise to "Jack U Off," as, accompanied by a suitably orgasmic soundtrack, The Kid introduces a teenage groupie named Apollonia (Patricia Kotero) to the pleasures of heavy petting. (For purposes of comparison, recall that around this time Michael Jackson was still busy asserting that Billie Jean was not his lover.) Figuratively speaking, Prince really was trying to reach out and touch his "hardcore audience"--which the Strib's Jon Bream had pegged as "females ages 14 to 18." Shrewdly, the film makes Kotero's overeager Apollonia into a surrogate for the awestruck Prince fan: Fresh out of the cab to First Avenue from somewhere that would have put $37.75 on the meter (in other words, not the airport), our voluptuous alter ego busts her way into the club just in time to appear properly gape-mouthed during The Kid's "Crazy" solo--an outrageous, Hendrixian squealer meant to hit 'em in the cheap seats and make even the AM transistor sizzle. And so it did.

Not yet enmeshed in Paisley Park, Prince wanted to take U with him in 1984, which is to say that the truly erotic moments in Purple Rain are those that bind performer and fan together through the rough foreplay of film editing. After forcing Apollonia to "pass initiation" by purifying herself in the waters of "Lake Minnetonka" (which, in a sick joke, is actually a swamp), The Kid comes on strong by singing "The Beautiful Ones" just for her--and anyone who doesn't get goose bumps during it ought to check her pulse. (Racy it was, this scene, although the mainstream breathed a collective sigh of relief in discovering that Prince did indeed prefer girls.) Spying Apollonia seated at a table with his rival, the Time's flamboyant frontman Morris (Morris Day), The Kid acts passive-aggressive even in seduction mode, delivering a ballad that's alternately cold and steamy, elegant and raw. He coos, purrs, growls, and ultimately shrieks the lyrics ("Do u want him?/Or do u want me?/'Cuz I want u") until, finally, he's flat on his back, writhing in rock-star agony. (And the fan, naturally, is in tears.)

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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