Prince’s Purple Rain – the inside story

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Je viens de tomber tout afait par hsard sur cet article qui date de 2016.

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Prince’s Purple Rain – the inside story
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David Cavanagh April 22, 2016

Twenty-five years ago, Prince knew he was a genius. The rest of the world, however, needed a little convincing. How to change this? Teach your band and friends how to act, hire a rookie director who can “tell my life story in 10 minutes”, and convince Hollywood to bankroll a musical.
The result? Purple Rain. A film that grossed $70 million, an album that sold 20 million copies, and the greatest triumph of one of rock’s true superstars. This is the inside story… Words: David Cavanagh. Originally published in Uncut’s December 2009 issue (Take 151). Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns.


In April 1983, when he came off the road after the five-month ‘Triple Threat Tour’, Prince was 24 and in complete control of his fiefdom. “Little Red Corvette” was accelerating up the US charts, and 1999, his extravagant double album, had outsold its predecessor by over a million. This super-skilled multi-instrumentalist wasn’t slow in proclaiming his genius: “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince,” boasted 1999’s cover.

But Prince still had a mountain to climb. While the video for “Little Red Corvette” had been one of the first by a black performer to receive widespread exposure on MTV, for Prince and his managers, a Michael Jackson-style crossover to white pop and rock fans was a matter of gradual progress, not overnight miracles. The ‘Triple Threat Tour’ had not ventured to Europe, Australia or Japan. Huge numbers of people around the world (and in America, for that matter) had yet to hear Prince’s music. And despite his talent, he was a complicated ‘sell’ to rock audiences. A diminutive, pouting dandy, he made music that was heavy on electro-funk synths, drum machines and X-rated lyrics. “We can jump in the sack and I’ll jack you off” was hardly ZZ Top.

For some five years, Prince’s management team, Cavallo-Ruffalo-Fargnoli, had worked hard to take him from 100,000 sales (his 1978 debut, For You) into the double-platinum echelon (1999). With their deal about to expire, Cavallo-Ruffalo-Fargnoli assumed that Prince’s signature on a new contract would be a formality. Until, that is, Bob Cavallo got a call in early 1983 from his associate Steve Fargnoli.

Cavallo remembers: “Steve says, ‘You’re not gonna believe this. He says he’ll re-sign with us if we get him a motion picture.’ And this is Prince’s quote. ‘I want it from a major studio. I don’t want it from some drug dealer or diamond jeweller that you find. And I want my name above the title.’ I was shocked. I thought, Holy Christ, how am I gonna handle this?”

“It was preposterous,” laughs Alan Leeds, Prince’s tour manager. “A movie starring an artist with only two hit singles? How was he going to carry it to the mainstream? Where would he even find the backing from a studio?”
Read any description of Purple Rain – and the words that appear most often are “biggest”, “bestselling”, “breakthrough” and “phenomenon”. It’s ironic, then, that this dual blockbuster, which made Prince a world-famous actor and musician, began life as a film that nobody wanted to finance or direct. The film would go on to gross $70 million, leaving executives at Warner Bros (who had been reluctant investors) stunned. The album, meanwhile, featuring several classic singles (“When Doves Cry”, “Let’s Go Crazy”, “Purple Rain”), topped the US album charts for 24 consecutive weeks. In Britain, it catapulted Prince from cult status to superstardom.

“Purple Rain really put the spotlight on Prince,” notes Matt Fink, former keyboard player in his band The Revolution. “A lot of people became aware of him very quickly. ‘You gotta go see this movie.’ ‘Oh yeah, I’ve heard of him… maybe I should check it out.’ Suddenly those people were finding out what all the fuss was about.” And then, in perfect symmetry, they bought the soundtrack album – which sold 10 million. “You couldn’t release enough singles from it,” Leeds marvels. “Everyone was discovering this spectacular performer and going wild for him.”

But when Bob Cavallo began his search for writers and directors in 1983, Warner Bros (the studio affiliated to Prince’s label) informed him it had no wish to spend money on a Prince movie. Cavallo and his partner Joe Ruffalo decided to go it alone. They approached an experienced Hollywood screenwriter, William Blinn, creator of Starsky & Hutch. Blinn was 46, and by his own admission “as square a white man as you’re going to find”. But he met Prince in LA, liked his ideas and agreed to pen a script.

“I suspect I was hired because I was executive-producing a television series called Fame,” Blinn relates. “I was the only guy in town doing something that combined music and drama. [Prince] talked to me about the kind of movie he wanted to do. He had a rough outline. It had the dysfunctional family and the rivalry between the two bands.”

The singers and musicians in Prince’s burgeoning Minneapolis funk-pop empire embarked on a two-month regime of acting and dancing lessons. They included Morris Day, frontman of The Time (a Prince-produced project); and Vanity, Prince’s ex, who performed in the provocative Vanity 6. Morris Day and Vanity were to be Purple Rain’s comic relief and romantic lead, respectively. There would also be cameos for The Revolution. Some of their interplay with Prince (The Kid) would be uncannily true-to-life.

“The movie exaggerated the rivalry between The Revolution and The Time,” Alan Leeds points out, “but it’s certainly true that there were frustrations in Prince’s band – in all the bands – that he didn’t allow them creative input. He was rigid in his assignment of their wardrobe, their make-up, their hairstyles. It was unsettling to know that he could change the way they looked, just like that, and they had no voice in it. But Prince’s rationale was, ‘I’m making you a star. Shut the fuck up.’”

The Revolution had undergone a personnel change. Guitarist Dez Dickerson had left after the ‘Triple Threat Tour’ and been replaced by 19-year-old Wendy Melvoin, the lover of keyboard player Lisa Coleman. Melvoin debuted with The Revolution at Minneapolis’ First Avenue club on August 3, 1983. The concert, a benefit for a local dance theatre, was a chance for Prince’s fans to hear the new music he’d been composing. “There was real fascination from the crowd that night,” remembers Leeds. “People were staring at the stage with their jaws dropped. It was clear that the music, the band, everything about this, was a step forward from six months ago.”

The script had not escaped criticism. A series of directors turned it down, declaring it too dark. The Kid’s father committed suicide. The Kid himself had suicidal thoughts. There wasn’t much music. Albert Magnoli, a 28-year-old who had edited the teen movie Reckless, told Bob Cavallo he wanted to write a new screenplay, which he would then direct. With no other option, Cavallo decided to take the risk. (“I thought, we’re gonna roll the dice here. Everybody will be new. First-time actors. First-time producers. First-time director.”) But when Magnoli flew to Minneapolis to discuss his ideas, he realised Prince was only interested in filming the old script. Magnoli told him it sucked – and received a terrifying glare for his trouble from Big Chick, Prince’s ever-present bodyguard. But Magnoli was convinced his concept was better: a blend of music, romance, street-speak, Prince’s vulnerability and his ultimate vindication, while keeping some of the darker tones (e.g. the violent father) Prince insisted on. Magnoli talked for 10 minutes, animatedly describing scenes and characters. Sending Big Chick home, Prince took Magnoli for a drive.

“He pulled off the freeway and we ended up on a pitch-black road,” Magnoli says, “with complete darkness either side. I later learned that this was a short cut to his house, through a cornfield. We were quiet for a while, and he turned to me and said, ‘Listen, do you know me? Do you know anything about me?’ I said, ‘No, all I’ve heard is “1999”.’ He said, ‘Well, how come you just told me my life story in 10 minutes?’ I said to him, ‘Look, if you’re committed to getting punched in the face on page five, we can make a movie together.’ He laughed and said, ‘I’m willing to do that.’”
The benefit concert that August was recorded. Three songs from the show (“I Would Die 4 U”, “Baby I’m A Star”, “Purple Rain”) would appear on the Purple Rain album – though not exactly in their original forms – as Prince carefully assembled the pieces of a soundtrack jigsaw.

Accustomed to long nights working alone in studios (playing every instrument himself), he opted instead for a 50-50 split between solo recordings and Revolution performances, using overdubs to blur the distinctions between live and studio material. One weekend he flew his engineer, David Leonard, from LA to Minneapolis so that he and The Revolution could record “Let’s Go Crazy” in the large rented warehouse where they’d been taking their acting lessons. Leonard had to build them a studio overnight.

“He spent months and months on Purple Rain,” Leonard recalls. “Most of his records, you were lucky if you were in the studio for two weeks. Sheila E’s The Glamorous Life [which Prince co-produced] was recorded in 11 days. Purple Rain took much longer because it was based around the filming. As things changed in the movie, things changed in the soundtrack.”

From new-wave rock to psych to balladry – with heavy metal-style guitar solos and every manner of vocal from a kitten falsetto to a growl – the music on Purple Rain would showcase Prince as an artist-composer who was not merely precocious, but a fully formed, multi-faceted wizard and true star.

“I really liked the direction his music took,” enthuses keyboard player Matt Fink, who’d joined his band in 1978. “If you were going to do a mainstream pop movie, the songs he was writing seemed right in line with it. I remember he took me for a ride in a car in LA – me and Bobby Z, the drummer – and played us ‘When Doves Cry’. He was really proud of it.” Like some kind of symphonic exultation from Stevie Wonder’s Songs In The Key Of Life rocketed into the ’80s synth age, “When Doves Cry” reassured producers Cavallo and Ruffalo that, at the very least, they would have a major hit single to promote their movie. Matt Fink, like most people, was spellbound by “When Doves Cry” but couldn’t help noticing something missing in the song. “There was no bass instrument. It was totally driven by the kick drum. My initial reaction was, ‘How come there’s no bass? You gonna be adding a bass?’ He said, ‘Nope. That’s it.’ I said, ‘Hmm… okay.’ It was only later that I realised what a brilliant production move it was.”

Not quite a live album, not quite a studio one, partly written to order, partly constructed from existing songs, Purple Rain remains a unique chapter in Prince’s career. A test pressing was made in November 1983, but it was some considerable time before the movie would be ready. Even to a man as impatient as Prince, releasing the soundtrack six months before the film did not seem a good idea.
Invariably seen cavorting around onstage in the flimsiest lingerie, Prince’s stunning protégée Vanity is described by screenwriter William Blinn as “the most gaspingly beautiful woman I’ve ever met”. Vanity’s decision to pull out of Purple Rain – after a disagreement about personal terms – created a casting emergency. After frantic auditions in Minneapolis, New York and LA, a replacement was found in Apollonia Kotero, a sweet-looking girl with a cute smile. While she provided the love interest, and Morris Day and sidekick Jerome Benton had fun as pantomime villains, Prince smouldered and scowled, a tortured soul with dilemmas everywhere. The man could act. But it was the scenes shot in the nightclub that made Purple Rain so memorable.

“It was the only time that Prince questioned the filmmaking process,” Magnoli relates. “He wasn’t used to stopping and starting the music while the cameras were realigned. He said, ‘Why are we stopping? I can’t do this!’ I came up with the idea that we’d do the performance all the way through, but then he’d give me a Take 2 and a Take 3. We were using four cameras per take, so that gave me 12 different angles and Prince could stay in performance mode, which he liked.”

“It became clear that the nightclub footage was going to carry the movie,” remarks Alan Leeds. “It wasn’t a popular thing to say out loud, because Prince wanted to believe that he was creating some form of magic theatre. But the performance scenes are what did it. They were so uniquely lit and shot. They made people feel like they were at a concert.”

Warners Bros, after their initial doubts, had been persuaded to invest. With the production running over-budget and requiring an urgent cash injection, the studio’s president, Terry Semel, asked to see a rough edit. But Magnoli had not yet edited those vital nightclub scenes.

“We show them the assemblage,” recalls Cavallo. “Semel stands up and says to Mo Ostin [chairman of Warner Bros Records], ‘Well, Mo, looks like you’ve given me another one of your rock fuck-ups.’ He’d been burned on Paul Simon’s One Trick Pony and was blaming Mo for what he was sure would be another failure.” Other Warners executives were more upbeat. Magnoli heard someone say “it’s a smash”. $600,000 was forthcoming.

Magnoli: “Then we finished it and there were discussions about to how to market it. The suits at Warners felt that I’d made a movie for an urban audience, meaning 13-year-old black girls, meaning the film probably only had a weekend or two at the box office. I said to them, ‘Do I look like a 13-year-old black girl? You’re dead wrong and I don’t give a crap what your research is telling you.’ The conversation made no sense to us. So we decided to screen it to white audiences.”

Cavallo: “The first screening was in Culver City, and Warners thought I’d set the audience up. They thought I’d put the Prince fan club in there! Semel said, ‘Bob, this is the film business. You’re not hyping a radio station.’” Warners deliberately kept the location of the next screening a secret. “So we got to this mall in a suburb of Denver,” recalls Cavallo and there’s a riot going on. The kids outside are going nuts – there are way more of them than the theatre has room for. The theatre owner has to beg for a couple more screenings. By now Warners know they’ve got something.”

Magnoli: “They realised, ‘Holy crap, the screenings are going way off the charts.’ And that’s when the suits stepped up to the plate and got us 900 theatres to open in. That was the first week. Then it went up to a thousand.”

Purple Rain officially premiered at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood on July 27, 1984. Eddie Murphy, Lionel Richie and Pee-wee Herman were among the A-list celebrities in attendance. Prince arrived in a purple stretch limo, distractedly holding a flower, unable to believe the size of the crowds. At the opening in Detroit days later, one of Prince’s promoters happened to be in the audience.

Alan Leeds: “He phoned us saying, ‘You won’t believe what’s going on. It’s like The Beatles. They’re screaming so loud you can’t hear the dialogue.’”

Cavallo: “Everything worked. The movie did $68 million, they say, in the first 12 months. Personally I always thought it was $70 million, but who’s going to argue? ”

Magnoli: “It was a different time. The major studios didn’t have their strategies locked down. Nowadays, of course, we would have been signed by Warners for a series of Purple Rain sequels in, like, 10 seconds. But back then it was, ‘Well, what do we all do now?’”

There was only one man who could kill Purple Rain’s momentum, and he did it on April 22, 1985 when he released Around The World In A Day, while Purple Rain was still selling steadily. His managers warned him that his timing was awful – for one thing, they were anxious to avoid market fatigue. But Prince, superstar, A-lister, autonomous will-o’-the-wisp, had entered a new phase of total artistic non-flexibility. Having heeded none of the warnings, his half-baked 1986 movie, Under The Cherry Moon (which he directed), won Golden Raspberry Awards for Worst Actor, Worst Director and Worst Film – in a tie with Howard The Duck. No purple stretch limos were spotted in the area that night.

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