Let's Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain By Alan Light Atria Books, 304 pp., $26
If you were a Warner Bros. movie studio executive, you had damn good reason to be nervous in July 1984, awaiting the release, critical reception, and box-office fortunes of a film called Purple Rain.
Here was a semi-autobiographical movie about an ambiguously sexual musician not many people had heard of, with a cobbled-together script, punctuated by lengthy concert sequences, and spoken by largely untrained actors. It was also filmed mostly in cold Minneapolis by a first-time director (Albert Magnoli), and the star refused to do much in the way of publicity when the film was complete.
Sounds like a recipe for success? Nope. But Purple Rain the film (and the soundtrack album and tour) helped chisel Prince's thin mustachioed visage on the Mount Rushmore of '80s music, joining Michael, Bruce, and Madonna.
It also remains the creatively insatiable and wandering artist's commercial high point and most recognizable physical "version" of himself. While songs like "Let's Go Crazy," "When Doves Cry," "I Would Die 4 U," and the title track -- which Prince originally offered to Stevie Nicks to write the lyrics -- among his most popular.
He was also the first artist to simultaneously have a No. 1 movie, album, and single in the U.S. And while he's arguably given music listeners betters offerings (I'll take Sign O' The Times any day), the ruffles and coats of his Purple reign supreme.
"[Purple Rain] is my albatross...it's be hanging around my neck as long as I'm making music," Prince once said in a rare interview. Light's book, part backstage/back studio investigation and part fanboy love letter, celebrates 30 years of the film by detailing the long and winding road of its screen and sonic components.
A music journalist and former writer/editor for Rolling Stone, Spin, and Vibe, Light tells the story with much intrigue. Along the way, he sheds light on the quirks and ambitions of Prince, whose vision was steadfast and who knew this could be his one and only shot at the big time.
After all, the "soundtrack" to Purple Rain, since it works completely as standalone record, was Prince's fifth record. And while his previous, 1999, had scored a couple of hits with "Little Red Corvette" and the title track, before Purple Rain, he was still a cult artist.
But thanks to a lessening of the funk and a move toward a more rock sound, and the incalculable boost to his profile from his videos on MTV, Prince got his calculated breakthrough. However, many feel he lost his true self when playing "Prince" became an obsession.
Light does a comprehensive job telling the story of the film and music's creation, buoyed by contemporary interviews with film execs, observers, and superfans like Questlove and Chris Rock. He says he did not approach Prince himself to talk -- though he likely would have gotten a no.
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But it's the comments elicited from former bandmates in the Revolution, including Matt Fink, Brown Mark, Bobby Z, Wendy Melvoin, and Lisa Coleman, that are the book's most telling about Purple Rain, the man who created most of it and what happened afterward.
Oddly, Light never mentions that the phrase "purple rain" first appeared in the song "Ventura Highway" by America. Did Prince, a known Joni Mitchell fan, slip some other '70s soft-rock discs among his Sly Stone, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Hendrix records?
Today, Purple Rain the soundtrack stands the test of time, and the movie is best remembered (correctly) for its exciting concert sequences and snapshot of the Minneapolis music scene at the time and not for any story line or stellar acting by anyone, save Clarence Williams III as Prince's troubled father.
(Unfortunately, we can't include a link to video from any of the movie's stellar songs. Prince and his people are tireless policers of YouTube and unauthorized clips appearing on the internet.)
Light's book takes us all back to a time when we could purify ourselves in the world of Prince and the waters of Lake Minnetonka. And be sure we have the right lake this time.