Controversy was released on October 14, 1981, days after Prince’s disastrous experience opening for the Rolling Stones in Los Angeles. The album outperformed both the previous year’s Dirty Mind and (narrowly) 1979’s Prince, reaching Number 21 on the Billboard 200 and Number 3 on the Top R&B Albums chart. A little over a month later, on November 20, the Controversy tour launched at Pittsburgh’s Stanley Theatre with opening act the Time.
After this time spent licking his wounds (and, more importantly, rehearsing), Prince returned with his most grandiose show to date. The tour-opener in Pittsburgh kicked off with the brazen call to arms “Sexuality”–complete with a full recital of the “tourists” speech–before hitting the audience with a turbo-charged version of “Why You Wanna Treat Me So Bad?” “Jack U Off” flourished in front of the sympathetic, largely female crowd, earning squeals rather than jeers; it was followed by the similarly crowd-pleasing “When You Were Mine” and “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” both with glistening new synthpop arrangements. From there the band launched directly into a surgical rendition of “Head”–by then such a live staple that the audience got to take a solo on the chorus. Shifting gears from that song’s masturbatory climax, a punkish “Annie Christian” followed, enlivened by Dez Dickerson’s guitar solos; then it was back to the crowd-pleasers with “Dirty Mind.” Despite being only five weeks old, “Do Me, Baby” had already earned its place as a concert setpiece–a designation helped, no doubt, by Prince’s onstage striptease. Closing out the setlist proper was a rousing rendition of “Let’s Work,” followed by a hat-trick of encores in “Controversy,” “Uptown,” and “Partyup.”
Yet perhaps the strongest indication of Prince’s growing ambitions as a performer came before the show had formally begun. Every Controversy date, from the warm-up at Sam’s in Minneapolis on October 5 to the tour-closer in Cincinnati on March 14, 1982, began with a new song played over the P.A. system, with the stage in total darkness. In yet another instance of Prince’s burgeoning messianism, the name of the song was “The Second Coming.”
Little more than a brief interlude, recorded at some point before the beginning of the tour at Prince’s Kiowa Trail home studio, “The Second Coming” attempts to tie together the thematic threads of the Controversy album, turning the accompanying live show into a conceptual experience. The idea of the “second coming” was of course mentioned in “Sexuality,” with both religious and orgasmic connotations both firmly intact. Here, it’s more definitively a reference to the return of Christ, as Prince, his multi-tracked voice erupting into a gospel chorus, pronounces that “It won’t be long / Before the Second Coming,” and that “all God’s children must learn to love.” The song’s sense of end-times anxiety is carried over from “Annie Christian”–as is the reference to contemporary political debates in the line, “How many more good men must die before there’s gun control?” The following line, “You’ve got to love your brother if you want to free your soul,” equally resonates with the post-racial utopianism of “Controversy.”
An a cappella prayer for world peace was a bold choice for a show-opener from an artist who had, only weeks earlier, been dodging chicken parts and bottles hurled by angry bikers. Few other artists–and certainly none of Prince’s middling commercial stature–were so willing to risk accusations of self-importance; few, too, were so eager to blend the sacred and the secular, temporarily transforming the rock clubs and occasional arenas he was playing into places of worship. But Prince was nothing if not bold; and along with its prominent place in his new tour, “The Second Coming” was also briefly slated to lend its name to a live album and feature film that would become one of the artist’s most notorious shelved projects.
The Second Coming film began as a straightforward concert movie, for potential home video or television distribution, documenting Prince’s triumphant homecoming date at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota. Tapped for the project was Chuck Statler, a music video director best known for his work on Devo’s surrealistic, sadomasochistic promo for “Whip It.” In fact, Statler was already in Prince’s orbit when plans for a movie commenced in early 1982: the previous year, he’d directed the video for the Time’s “Cool,” a charmingly low-budget scenario in which Morris Day and the band take over a high school classroom to teach an ad-hoc lesson in swagger (see above).
Statler and his crew captured the Met Center show on color 16mm, in what he recalled as one “very cold night” in early March. But as he edited the footage with Stephen Rivkin–the brother of Bobby and David Z–the project began to transform into something bigger and more ambitious. “We were cutting the concert shots when Prince came in and got really excited about what he saw,” Statler told Tony Best for Wax Poetics. “He says, ‘Wait a minute—maybe we should really expand this and really try to make it a film. Not just a concert movie’” (Best 2012).
The catch was that, at least in 1982, Prince’s idea of what constituted a “film” was exactly as singular as you’d expect. As Best points out, the closest existing analogue to the planned Second Coming movie was Peter Clifton’s and Joe Massot’s The Song Remains the Same (1976), which alternated live footage of Led Zeppelin with cinematic “fantasy sequences” starring the individual band members. But, as Statler notes, the interstitial footage in The Song Remains the Same “looks more theatrical” (Best 2012)–whereas Prince’s vision for The Second Coming was more like an expensive boudoir video.
Based on the shots that have leaked, the film’s dramatic segments were “dramatic” in only the loosest sense of the word (see above). In one scene, Prince emerges from the bottom of the frame with his girlfriend at the time, Susan Moonsie, their clothes suggestively disheveled. In another, Prince, Moonsie, and ex-girlfriend Kim Upsher (or possibly not-so-ex–the boundaries in Prince’s romantic relationships were permeable at best) walk into the camera from a heavily backlit doorway, the two women in proto-Vanity 6 lingerie. A third just captures Prince looking generally seductive: sucking his finger and pulling his coat aside to reveal an expanse of bare thigh. Like so many of his projects at the time, the shoot was centered around Prince’s home in Chanhassen, which no doubt contributed to the amateur-porn aesthetic.
Statler recalled the experience as a “gruesome drill. The filming went on and on… being the perfectionist and control maestro that he is. We were trying to be as efficient as possible, but it became one thing after another, which delayed the whole process instead of doing quite the opposite.” One shot stood out in the director’s memory as particularly taxing: “It started as a boom shot on his white boots with the bandana wrapped around his ankle,” Statler explained. “Then we boomed straight up; Prince had this duster jacket on, flipped it back and revealed his little black bikini. It continued to come up and ended on his face. Right then he blew a pink Hubba Bubba bubble. He starts chewing the gum, takes it out of his mouth, wraps it around his finger and sticks it back in his mouth” (Best 2012).
“Now this was late in what felt like a three-day drill, but in reality was probably more in the area of twenty-plus hours of production,” Statler continued. “After about so many takes I say, ‘Okay, we got it. Let’s go on to the next shot.’ Prince looks at me and says, ‘No—I’ll tell you when we got it.’” In the end, “We shot roll after roll after roll on that boom shot. The crew was exhausted and started passing out. So I go over to the management to tell them we’re already in platinum time. We already shot a thousand feet for this shot. [laughs] It was insane, but I realized he was making a statement—‘We’ll stop when I decide’” (Best 2012).
As with many a Prince project before and since, however, the artist’s micro-managing of The Second Coming was no indication of his lasting interest. Not long after the infamous Hubba Bubba shot, Statler recalled, Prince abruptly pulled the plug on the project. “His management did come back to me several times over the years to discuss the project, but nothing materialized,” the director told Wax Poetics. “The film just sat there” (Best 2012). Around 2007, Prince got in touch to secure the Met Center footage and (finally) compensated Statler for his work. As far as anyone knows, the footage was never edited.
In the Wax Poetics interview, Statler said, “There’s little question in my mind that The Second Coming would have enjoyed commercial success” (Best 2012). At least when compared to what eventually became Prince’s big-screen debut, Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain, I’m a little more skeptical. While it’s obviously impossible to know what the unfinished film could have become, the leaked dramatic segments don’t exactly look like the kind of thing that would have packed theaters with Middle American teens. At worst, the film could have been a legendary disaster, like Bob Dylan’s infamous Renaldo and Clara (1978); more likely, though, given Prince’s onstage magnetism and Statler’s visual acumen, it may have achieved the cult status and credibility of something like Jonathan Demme’s 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense.
But while none of these fates were meant to be, The Second Coming’s DNA would show up again in later Prince projects. Most obviously, the aforementioned Purple Rain was effectively an inversion of the movie’s conceit: a mostly narrative film interspersed with (staged) live performances. Even closer to the original vision was Prince’s and Magnoli’s 1987 Sign “O” the Times film, which used (extremely) loose narrative interludes to tie together a mix of live and reshot performances. “The Second Coming,” the song, was more of an evolutionary dead end: after the Controversy tour wrapped, it was mostly forgotten. But even still, its after-effects could be felt: three years later, Prince would take his audience back to church, opening the Purple Rain film, album, and tour with a brand new sermon.
(Obviously, this article could not have been written without Tony Best’s excellent Wax Poetics interview with Chuck Statler. I linked it above, but I’m linking it again here to reiterate my indebtedness to Tony’s original research.)
“The Second Coming”