A Blockbuster Turns 30: Alan Light Talks About Prince and 'Purple Rain'
Music journalist and author of Let's Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain Alan Light talks with PopMatters about Prince's one-of-a-kind perfect album.
Let's Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple RainPublisher: Atria
Length: 304 pages
Author: Alan Light
Publication Date: 2014-12
It takes a lot of nerve and confidence for a relatively still-emerging musician to tell his his managers that unless they get him a movie deal, he wasn't going to renew his contract with them. But then again, Prince was not your typical artist when he delivered that ultimatum to his team in 1983. By that time, with five records under his belt, the Minneapolis musician had finally broke through with the 1999 album and its two hit singles, “Little Red Corvette” and the title song. He found a wider audience via MTV and appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone. As Prince's then-manger Bob Cavallo remembered about 30 years later: “He says, 'It has to be with a major studio, my name above the title' -- basically Warner Bros. Pictures presents Prince in his first motion picture.' Think how carefully he thought about this.”
That movie, which later became Purple Rain, and its soundtrack of the same name, would propel Prince to superstardom on the level of Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen during that summer of 1984. This is the story Alan Light tells in his new book Let's Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of 'Purple Rain', published by Atria. Featuring interviews with Prince's former associates and band mates from the Revolution, the book offers a behind-the-scenes look at the both the film and the music.
Among the interesting facts mentioned in the book include the hurdles of getting the movie execs on board with the project (one person suggested John Travolta to play the lead character instead of Prince); shooting the movie during the freezing cold in Minneapolis; the genesis of one of Prince's signature songs “Purple Rain”; and the somewhat abrupt conclusion of the Purple Rain tour. The book also places Purple Rain's arrival in a year that not only saw an American pop music scene dominated by blockbuster albums from Jackson, Springsteen and Madonna, but also a greater prominence of African Americans in the cultural mainstream, from The Cosby Show to Jesse Jackson's candidacy for the presidency. All in all, Purple Rain still stands out 30 years later as Prince's most notable achievement in his idiosyncratic career.
Light's previous work includes former editorial positions at Rolling Stone, Spin and Vibe, as well as the books The Skills to Pay the Bills (about the Beastie Boys) and The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah”. He had interviewed Prince before; prior to that, he was a fan of the artist during his teenage years and lived through the Purple Rain era. In this PopMatters interview, Light talks about the movie and the album and how they defined Prince's legacy.
Alan Light (photo by Mary Ellen Matthews).
What made you decide to write the book? I remember in The Holy or the Broken you referenced 1984, which was an incredible year in pop music.
There's probably no record that in real time meant more to me than Purple Rain did. There are records that you discover after the fact: Beatles records, Marvin Gaye records, or Miles Davis records that I love more than anything. But in terms of when a record was actually out -- what was my degree of obsession with it at the moment -- I don't think anything tops Purple Rain at that time.
The other thing that I was really thinking about was wanting to write about 1984, even as specific as the summer of 1984. It's particularly vivid in my head since it was the summer that I graduated high school, so it was a very clear and important time for me. That summer was Purple Rain, [Bruce Springsteen's] Born in the U.S.A. the Jacksons' Victory tour, and [Madonna's] “Like a Virgin”. There's arguably never been as explosive a moment for pop music as that moment. And then concurrently is this very fascinating year in black culture, from the debut of The Cosby Show to Jesse Jackson running for president to Michael Jordan being drafted, there was this kind of big wave of black influence on mass culture that was going on. And Prince was riding a wave to all of these things that were happening.
Do you remember the first time you saw Purple Rain in a theater 30 years ago?
I was out of my mind. My friends and I were already big Prince fans. For whatever reason, I was a Prince fan even before 1999 and had seen him on the 1999 tour. I was counting the days 'til initially hearing the first single, which was “When Doves Cry”; and then a month later the album coming out; and then finally in July the moving coming out. Whenever we look back and think of the movie -- and the flaws in the movie were obvious -- the opening 15 minutes are so great: opening with “Let's Go Crazy” [and] straight into the Time doing “Jungle Love”. So all this build up to waiting for the movie, and then the movie opens and it's so amazing right out of the gate. I saw it over and over again all summer with my friends from high school, and then got to college in the fall, and that's what all my new friends had been doing all summer, so we had to go all over again and re-experience it with that set of friends.
The story behind the making of the Purple Rain film is just as fascinating as the movie itself. The fact that the film even got made with all the hurdles it went through—from convincing the executives to distribute it, to the actual filming itself—is incredible.
We look at it now and it feels like there was an inevitability to Purple Rain. [Prince] was the great genius of his time, and of course there was going to be a vehicle at some point that was going to translate that to the world. But when you actually go back to the moment of this movie happening and say “Here's a guy with two hit singles; doesn't do press; doesn't have any mainstream visibility or awareness at all; insisting that he be allowed to make a feature film that winds up with a first time director, a first time producer; the band as most of the cast who never acted before; we'll shoot in Minneapolis in the winter.” Which piece of that says this is going to be a big success? It just sounds insane. He obviously had the vision and the will to make this thing happen. Clearly he knew what was possible at that moment [and] what the potential was long before anyone else could see it. The range [of reaction] was from mild amusement to total disbelief, thinking that Prince was nuts for even wanting to do something like this. It's just astonishing to look back and think -- whether you give him full credit for exactly knowing where it was going to go or just for knowing where it might go -- that this was something no one else could see.
While technically the movie Purple Rain is fictitious, there are semi-autobiographical elements drawn from Prince's life, such as his relationships with his band and his father. It might be the closest thing to knowing the real person.
That was so much of the fascination at the time. We knew so little about him. The other thing that is amazing is thinking about the fact that he did not do one single interview for the entire cycle from 1999 coming out to after [the 1985 album] Around the World in a Day. All the way through the making and marketing of Purple Rain, he did not speak one time to the press and the public. No question so much of the fascination was this mystery of how much of it was true and how much of it was his real life. It was clear that some of it was and some of it wasn't. He's not mixed, his parents are both black, but that is not the way it was depicted in the film. But this sense of outsider-ness and the sense of tension with the family and the world around him and the feeling of it seems to be very real for who he is and where he was. I think he was certainly well aware that he wanted it to be not a documentary but certainly something that was about what his life is in the community and the scene in Minneapolis felt like, and to find a way to translate that. That's certainly the most effective dramatic parts of what the film are.
Taking away from the shaky acting and plot for a moment, the movie really mesmerizes thanks to the musical performances on stage.
It absolutely does. As much as he's done a terrible disservice by letting all the other live documents go out of print, scrubbing everything from the Internet, making it so difficult to see any other evidence of that band in their prime -- I think all of that is a terrible mistake. All of that said, it does only raise the impact of what it means when you see those Purple Rain performances because there's nowhere else that you can see them, there's nowhere else that you can watch that band. It's riveting; there's no way around it. And very much to the credit of the director, Al Magnoli -- who was a rookie and a kid -- there were some really good decisions that were made on how they shot the live stuff that really makes a difference. The fact that it was shot very live and kind of dirty around the edges -- there's a lot of shots from the audience's perspective, there's a lot of shots with heads and drink trays in the frame -- it's not like a clean classic live perfect shot. It's feels really exciting and live and visceral, the way that they did that.
Do you think Prince clearly was going for a crossover audience when he recorded the Purple Rain album?
I think it was very clearly his intention. I think it's [former Revolution guitarist] Dez Dickerson in the book who says that you could see the audience shifting as the 1999 tour was going on with the bigger rooms. And then you could see those rooms being filled with more and more white faces, and that there was this pop audience that was coming. It's impossible to know if this was part of the vision for the movie, a result of committing to how all these pieces line up in sequence, or what was happening with his music, so he knew it was time to make the movie. Clearly, he was positioning himself as the front man guitar player in a rock 'n' roll band. [It] was a very different place than where he had been before that. That was part of what he did, but he was much more the solitary funk wizard in the years before that.
Purple Rain represented that image of “Here's a guy playing guitar in front of a band.” That translated with an entirely different audience than where he had been before that... the structure of the songs, the sound and feel of the songs moved away from being a dance record, an R&B record, a club record, to something that still had that but was also much more a pop record and a rock record. Those were obviously deliberate decisions. As a result, Prince at that moment resonated all the way across the spectrum -- rock kids, pop kids, black kids, white kids, older, younger, guitar rockers, R&B radio -- everybody agreed on this guy in a way that kind of hasn't happened since then.
I forgot how groundbreaking the song “When Doves Cry” is. The fact that it didn't have a bassline in it lends a very stark feel to the the track.
It wasn't like “That was the story”. The story was this thing didn't sound like whatever we expected from Prince. It's just such a weird record -- that crazy, grinding, industrial noise that it has. Keep in mind when you read the book, you realize that song was written last minute as the summary statement of the director saying, “Okay, I'm gonna cut this montage sequence, so can you just write something that brings in the scenes of the movie.” And that's what he came back with. But when we heard it, it was two months before the movie came out. That was either gonna work on its own terms or not. It's an incredibly daring record sonically, thematically and everything. It instantly exploded. In some ways it was the safer thing to do, but in some ways there was some risk that they did lead so far ahead with the single/soundtrack, that if there was any chance those were going to disappoint, the movie was going to be dead before it ever opened. Obviously, they were confident with what they had and what the music was, so it was a wise thing to do. If it hadn't immediately taken off, then it certainly did put the movie at enormous risk.
Would you say that Purple Rain is Prince's best work?
A lot of Prince fans -- myself included -- would probably say that Sign 'O' The Times is the record that you listen to the most, and that best represents the full scope of all the things he's capable of. Part of the merit of Sign 'O' The Times is the sprawl of it, that it's a double album. It's got so much stuff, there's weird experimental things on it. One of the great reasons for the success of Purple Rain is that there is not one ounce of fat on [it], not one wasted second. It's all exactly there. I don't think there's any question that if you were going to say to somebody “Who was Prince, and what does he do, and what is he about?”, that you'd start with Purple Rain. That's the most basic and perfect distillation of the things he can do. I don't know if I'd say it's his best record, but it's certainly his most perfect record.
Prince hasn't fanned the flames of nostalgia for the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain this year, despite your book and this reported upcoming reissue of the album.
It's why I didn't pursue him for the book. I've spent a lot of time with him, I've done a lot of work with him, and he's always very adamant that he won't talk about the past. When I asked him [in] the 20th anniversary year of Purple Rain about it, he said, “I know what it was to do that, I know what it took for us to make that, I don't need to revisit that. I need to move forward, I don't need to look backward.” And so he's never commemorated anniversaries, he's never exploited that stuff. And look, I understand. He doesn't stop to look backwards. Sometimes it's really frustrating; sometimes you'd like to see him celebrate that. But it's not like he doesn't play the songs. The Purple Rain songs have always been the backbone of the live show; it's not like he runs from it.
In doing the book and looking at the fact that he cut the Purple Rain tour off so quickly and so abruptly and immediately moved to Around the World in a Day and started to move away from this band configuration, I think there are two things at work at that moment that really played out throughout the rest of his career. He reached the mountaintop and saw what it would take to be that kind of a pop star. That life means playing the same show over and over again for months and years, and that it was demanding of a certain kind of marketing and repetition. Of course, he's too restless to commit to that. He says, “I can't do that, my head is already in a different place.”
But also I think that having been right about the movie when everybody else was wrong, and having seen the kind of success that it could be when nobody around him believed it, I think it also became impossible to say no to him. He showed you that he knew better than everybody. I think those two things start to play out at that moment: on the one hand, he doesn’t ever want to get stuck in one spot too long, and at the same time, he feels like “Whatever it is I want to do, that's the right thing to do.”
All that's to say, is that he's never going to be the sort who's gonna do the anniversary tour, the reunion tour. The only thing that I've heard him say about this alleged deluxe reissue since the announcement was one quote saying that he's wasn't really that excited to do it. It was the AP interview that he did when these albums [2014's Art Official Age and PLECTRUMELECTRUM] came out. There was one line where he said, “Yeah, I'm doing it. It will be nice for people to have better sound, but I don't really care.”
In retrospect, the timing of Purple Rain's arrival during that blockbuster year of 1984 was so perfect. It was like all the stars were aligned for the success of that album/movie.
It wouldn't have been the same phenomenon in any other moment, in any other moment in his career, and in any other moment where music is or where the culture is. It was everybody's first project after Thriller and it was everybody's first project after seeing MTV become a national force, and there was such a sense of the scale and the opportunities re-calibrated. It was what Springsteen was going through with Born in the U.S.A.; that was him saying. “If I can distill my message presented in this other way, I can get it across to a whole other magnitude of people than what I had been doing before." That was a very deliberate intent what Born in the U.S.A. was. So it was where these guys were in their careers, as well as where the world was and the way that those things lined up.
Even now, Taylor Swift is the biggest star in the world and is the only person who is selling records with that kind of a magnitude. There are whole massive pockets of the pop audience that either completely ignore her or have no use for her. And that's fine; what's out there is big enough for her to continue to grow and grow. But again, that ceiling of something that is universal and central to the culture, that everybody has an opinion about and has some relationship to it: that's what Purple Rain felt like. It's harder every day as we see what happens to the music audience to imagine something that would have that kind of all-encompassing feel to it.
Despite some of its weaknesses, the movie has some really good moments that one can appreciate now 30 years after the fact.
The movie is a weird beast, there’s no question about it. Even knowing some of the stuff that was ridiculous and being able to laugh -- I remember laughing and repeating the most ridiculous lines back to [my friends], it was a part of our conversation every day. I think there was always a sense that the movie was better than it had to be. At least there was an ambition, there was something that was going for it that was a little bit more than the minimum, that there was some emotional weight to it. Again, they were smart enough that there's no point where the movie goes longer after ten minutes without a song in it; the first 15 minutes are all on stage; the last 20 minutes are all onstage; [and] there's an hour in between that is broken up pretty effectively. It's never too long, even if you completely dismiss the rest of it, it never goes on for a difficult amount of time. So they did sew it all together nicely. One thing you make no excuses or apologies for are the [musical] performances.