“The MUSIC segues into a fierce BEAT.
The CROWD lets out a ROAR! Prince
strips off his guitar, streaks center-
stage. The Band launches into ‘Baby,
I’m A Star.’
“…And the CROWD laughing, dancing,
shouting and loving. The CLUB is ALIVE!
“And the MUSIC continues…forever…”Draft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
In the spring of 1983, Prince’s contract with managers Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli was up for renewal. They had, on the face of it, little reason to worry: the 1999 tour was selling out arenas, “Little Red Corvette” was in the Top 10 of the pop charts, and 1999 was well on its way to Platinum certification by the RIAA. By the end of April, Prince would make the cover of Rolling Stone: a coveted opportunity for which his managers had netted a Richard Avedon photo shoot without granting an interview. “I thought we did an incredible job, we had a creative relationship, I’m sure he’s gonna sign another contract,” Bob Cavallo later told music journalist Alan Light. But Prince sent his main handler, Steve Fargnoli, back to Cavallo with a surprising ultimatum: “he won’t sign with us again unless we get him a movie” (Light 51).
As those in his orbit could attest, Prince’s sudden interest in movie stardom wasn’t quite as sudden as it seemed. Jill Jones, his backing singer and girlfriend at the time, recalled spending hours watching movies with him: “A lot of Italian films–he loved Swept Away–old Cary Grant,” she told Light. “He got into David Lynch at one point, so he really started looking at, like, Eraserhead; I remember screaming at that little worm-baby or whatever it was. He was looking at European directors, trying to pull all of that in. He was really into the old studio system, too, Louis B. Mayer, he had books on those, looking at how that was structured.” Both Jones and keyboardist Lisa Coleman confirmed to Light that Prince’s filmmaking ambitions were evident as early as the Dirty Mind era: “When I was touring with Teena Marie and we were opening for him, he said he was going to do a movie, but he didn’t really elaborate,” said Jones (Light 53).
Then, of course, there was The Second Coming: his ill-fated concert film with music video director Chuck Statler, started and quickly abandoned in 1982. Far from an anomaly, according to drummer Bobby Z, this was just part of how Prince operated: “The movie was talked about for a long time,” he told Per Nilsen’s Uptown fanzine. “We were always videotaping rehearsals and shows [and] making skits” (Nilsen 1999 121).
The origin of the film that would eventually become Purple Rain–Prince’s major motion picture debut, and the project that cemented his emerging superstar status–was an 11-page, handwritten treatment, unearthed after the artist’s death in 2016 and published in his posthumous memoir The Beautiful Ones. According to the book’s co-author and editor, Dan Piepenbring, Prince “may have written these pages as early as the spring or summer of 1982” (Prince 2019 272). He begins by sketching out the “dreams and aspirations” of three principal characters: Morris Day, “a good-looking, cool 22-year-old part-time musician, part-time pimp, part-time dreamer”; Vanity, a “very attractive” 17-year-old “from a well-to-do family” whose “lifelong hang-up” is to be “one of the gang”; and Prince, a “mentally disturbed” 19-year-old who “has spent one half of his life playing music and the other half trying to figure out who he really is” (218-219).
Unsurprisingly, it’s the “Prince” character who requires the most unpacking. Like both the real Prince and Purple Rain’s “the Kid,” he had a troubled home life. His mother and father read like lurid caricatures of Mattie Shaw and John L. Nelson: the former a harridan defined by her “drinking, cursing, and craving for sex”; the latter a “wise but stubborn God-fearing man who only wanted a clean, quiet, Christian home to come to after spending the night in some sleazy nightclub he worked [at] part-time to keep food on the table” (Prince 2019 218-219). The character of the father, like Clarence Williams III’s “Francis L.” in Purple Rain, has a violent temper; but the scenes of domestic abuse in the treatment have an especially pulpy, Gothic flair, with the patriarch “[g]oing berserk” and “quoting scripture from the Good Book” while he “blood[ies] his wife’s face” (219). Finally, just like in reality, the fictional Prince experiences a traumatic separation from his father at “6 or 7 years old”; rather than anything so prosaic as a divorce, though, here the crucial event is a murder-suicide: “he watched as his mother shot his father dead[,] then turned the gun on herself” (218).
Needless to say, this childhood trauma had a profound effect on Prince, who the treatment tells us has been diagnosed by “3 doctors” with a “split personality.” His mental turmoil manifests itself in wild mood swings: “One minute he’s a sweet, quiet little introvert,” Prince writes. “The next he’s either screaming the book of Revelation to someone or he’s drunk in the corner of some bar–masturbating” (Prince 2019 219). Multiple times throughout the film, he is triggered into “flashbacks… which cause him to act either like his mother or his father”; in an impressive understatement, Prince writes that an “interesting aspect of the film” is that both parents will be played by him during these sequences (220). At one point, the protagonist and Vanity have a “torrid fight-love scene” where “Prince believes Vanity is his mother and he is his father”; whether Prince also plays Vanity playing his mother is, regrettably, left unclarified (221).
The film’s climax is a battle of the bands between Prince’s group and their rivals, Morris and the Time, which the latter wins after Prince has another onstage meltdown: “Switching between his mother and his father, he throws the band completely off by quoting the bible in between cursing the audience for being sinners, all the while crying and singing the torments of being a schizophrenic.” Abandoned by his bandmates, Prince goes home with Vanity; they go to bed together, then he wakes up and shoots himself with the same gun his mother used to shoot his father–only to wake up again, realizing “it was all a dream” (Prince 2019 221).
Prince appears not to have shared his notes with Cavallo and company, which was probably for the best; the film he had in mind was almost certainly more hermetic, melodramatic, and bizarre than whatever his managers would have envisioned. Also, more tonally inconsistent: somewhere in the midst of all this Oedipal navel-gazing and gender-bending, Prince also promised several “comic subplots involving the Time,” at least two of which (a scene in which Morris climbs in the wrong window at night and mistakenly seduces Vanity’s mom, and another where a house party “gets an uninvited guest–a bat”) he would later pilfer for his second feature, 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon (Prince 2019 221). Its more overtly bonkers trappings aside, however, it’s striking just how much of his treatment ended up on the screen in 1984, even after iterations by two separate screenwriters: from the intra- and inter-band turmoil between the Time and the Revolution, to the Kid’s anxieties over inheriting the sins of his parents.
Prince continued to work on ideas during the 1999 tour. When Alan Leeds joined as tour manager in March 1983, he’d often see the artist writing in a purple notebook: “people were saying, ‘He’s writing a movie,’” Leeds told Alan Light. “I just knew that he’s got this notebook, and he sits on the bus and he writes and he wants to make a movie–you know, like, ‘Yeah, so do I’” (Light 55).
Albert Magnoli, the writer and director of the movie that became Purple Rain, claims that the famed “purple notebook” was more myth than reality: “There was no purple notebook that I saw,” he told sessionographer Duane Tudahl. “Years later, after the movie was in the theater, I kept on hearing about this purple notebook. And I said to Prince, ‘What purple notebook?’ and he says, ‘I used to walk around with a purple notebook and I took notes; everybody assumed I was writing a movie and I never told them I wasn’t’” (Tudahl 2018 53). Notebook or no notebook, though, there is plenty of evidence that he was testing out concepts for the film: Lisa Coleman, for example, remembered “a plane ride during the tour” when Prince “called me to come sit next to him and told me a lot of the ideas. He would ask me things like, ‘Would you kiss Matt [Fink] if I wrote this scene?’ He would describe how he saw the character, who I was” (Light 54).
By the end of the tour, Prince was individually reaching out to his band members to brief them on their next big move. Dr. Fink–who never did get his big kiss scene with Lisa–recalled a breakfast meeting with Prince in Ohio: “He took me to the hotel restaurant and told me about his plans to do the movie, asked what I thought about that and if I was excited about it,” he said to Light. “I said yes to all of it–I thought it was a great idea to go for; why not?” It was only after the meeting was over when it occurred to him: “Now, wait a minute. Do we really have the following to create a movie that’s going to generate enough people to come out and see it, create the revenue to support something like that?” (Light 55).
Prince’s demands for his managers were simple. “He said, ‘It’s gotta be a major movie; it can’t be with one of [your] gangster friends’ or something,” Cavallo recounted to Light, adding, “I went to Georgetown University, I’m not a mob guy! But anyway, whatever his fantasy was, he says, ‘It has to be with a major studio, my name above the title’–basically, ‘Warner Brothers presents Prince in his first motion picture’” (Light 58).
As far as the received wisdom was concerned, he may as well have been asking them to lasso the moon. Past rock musicians who successfully made the jump to mainstream movies–Elvis Presley with Love Me Tender (Robert D. Webb, 1956), the Beatles with A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)–had done so at the height of their superstardom; Prince, with just two major pop hits under his belt (and a three-year gap between them), barely qualified as a regular, non-super star. Implicit in this calculation was his position as a Black artist in an implicitly White-supremacist industry. If the R&B charts were taken as seriously as the Top 40, then a Prince movie would have been an immediately bankable proposition–would have been, that is, had Hollywood not been even less hospitable to Black talent than the music business. In the January 1983 issue of The Crisis, NAACP Assistant General Counsel Curtis E. Rodgers reported that out of 193 major studio productions in the previous year, only eight had featured Black leads, down from 16 in 1972 and 21 in 1973; of those eight films, no less than three starred the generational talent Richard Pryor (Rodgers 6).
Prince, however, was not about to start respecting racial barriers after five years of diligently dismantling them; while at the same time, Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli weren’t ready to give up on the fortune they stood to make off their rising-star client. So, they acceded to his demands. As Fargnoli put it in a 1984 interview with the British movie magazine Photoplay, “Prince wanted to make a movie, so we got together and proceeded as if everybody in the world thought that was a good idea” (Tudahl 2018 53).
This, too, was easier said than done. The closest thing Cavallo had to contacts in the movie industry were 17-year-old relationships from when he represented folk-rockers the Lovin’ Spoonful, who had contributed the soundtracks for Woody Allen’s What’s Up, Tiger Lily? and Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now (both 1966): “So I knew directors and producers and stuff,” he told Light, “but where the fuck was I gonna get a writer who wants to write a Prince movie?” (Light 66). Contributing to the sense of urgency–and the tough sell for potential backers–was the fact that Prince wanted to shoot the film in Minneapolis by the end of the year, which left them less than nine months to pull together a script and financing before the notoriously frigid Minnesota winter set in.
To help get the film off the ground, Prince and his managers each put up half a million dollars of their own money, while Cavallo looked for a writer to develop a screenplay. His first solid lead was William Blinn, an experienced television writer best known for his Primetime Emmy-winning work on 1971’s Brian’s Song, an ABC Movie of the Week about the interracial friendship between Chicago Bears players Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Gale Sayer (Billy Dee Williams); and on the 1977 ABC miniseries adaptation of Alex Haley’s Roots. At the time, Blinn was also writer and Executive Producer of Fame, the NBC TV series based on the 1980 musical about teenagers attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts; but the show’s ratings had been suffering, and its renewal for a third season was in jeopardy. Looking for a potential back-up plan, he agreed to meet Cavallo and Prince for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Hollywood.
Right from the start, Blinn and Prince made for an odd couple. The “mild, middle-aged” writer (in the words of Kurt Loder) was taken aback by the musician’s eccentric dinner choice: “I never met anyone in the world who ordered spaghetti with tomato sauce and orange juice to drink,” he recalled. Blinn was similarly flummoxed by Prince’s attempts to explain his ideas for the movie: the artist was “not conversationally accessible,” he told Loder. “He’s not purposefully face-to-the-wall, but casual conversation is not what he’s good at. It was as if I asked someone what they wanted for dinner, and they said they weren’t sure, but they’d like it to have some tomatoes in it, and some beef, and some onions. And I’d say, ‘I think we’re talking about beef stew here’” (Loder 1984).
Later, while Prince was in Minnesota for his March 15 homecoming date at the Met Center in Bloomington, the fledgling partnership was almost derailed entirely. Blinn had flown out to the Twin Cities to work with Prince on developing his initial outline into a draft script; but the mercurial artist first cancelled several appointments, then abruptly walked out of a movie they were seeing together 20 minutes after it started. “When I got back to the hotel, Steve Fargnoli was in the lobby,” Blinn recalled to biographer Dave Hill. “I said, ‘Look, I want out of this. You’ve got a rock ‘n’ roll crazy on your hands. I know he’s very gifted, but frankly, life’s too short’” (Hill 145). The writer returned to Los Angeles; but a few days later, Prince called to ask him to come back: “He didn’t exactly apologize, but he said he’d been under a lot of stress and tension and he did want to talk” (145-146).
From there, the project proceeded more smoothly. Blinn’s draft screenplay, which he gave the working title Dreams, is not widely circulating; however, accounts of its content suggest that it hewed relatively close to Prince’s original treatment–right down to the murder-suicide, which was now inverted so that it was the protagonist’s father who shot his mother first. To Hill, Blinn described Dreams as a dark, psychological character study, with the character of Prince motivated on the one hand by “the trauma of this murder-suicide, and the magnetism of death,” and on the other hand by life, “represented by sex and music.” The conflict of the film hinged on “whether he was going to embrace life–in the form of the character of the girl, and the substance and form of his music–or whether, in essence, he was going to be swallowed up by the death that surrounded him” (Hill 144). The goal at this point was clearly not standard Hollywood fare: Prince “wanted a picture that people would think of as ‘weird’ but couldn’t get away from,” Blinn later claimed. “A picture that would shock you, I guess, without being The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (Nilsen 1999 122).
Indeed, Prince was so focused on his movie’s storyline that the music was something of an afterthought. The last page of his treatment includes a list of potential songs–”Baby I’m a Star,” “I Would Die  U,” “Moonbeam Levels,” “I Can’t Stop This Feeling I Got,” “Too Tough,” “Wouldn’t U Love to Love Me”, “I Just Wanna Be Rich,” and “Bold Generation,” “among others”–but it isn’t clear if he wrote this list before the formal writing process had begun or if he added his notes later. Blinn recounted listening to songs Prince had written while driving around Lake Minnetonka in his car: ”They were wonderful, wonderful songs,” he told Hill (Hill 146). But he and Prince clearly never decided on all of the songs to be used in the film; according to Nilsen, the only song named in Blinn’s draft of Dreams was “Mia Bocca,” a track Prince had written in late 1982 or 1983 and would ultimately give to Jill Jones.
The music would obviously take shape quickly enough. But first, Prince had to make some decisions about the band members who would appear in the film with him.
After returning from the 1999 tour in April, Prince called guitarist Dez Dickerson over to his house on Kiowa Trail in Chanhassen. “We sat in the control room of the studio and talked,” Dickerson wrote in his 2003 memoir. Prince “talked expansively, almost to the point that it was difficult for me to really understand what he was saying. His mind was obviously going a million miles an hour. Rather than give it a rest now that the tour was over, he had obviously kicked back into major planning mode” (Dickerson 234).
Prince’s “major plan” was, of course, the movie; and he wanted to give Dez, at this point his longest-tenured sideman after Bobby Z and Dr. Fink, the chance to get in on the ground floor. That he was the only band member to receive an invitation, rather than instructions, was no mistake: Dickerson had been increasingly drifting away from Prince, to the point that he had spent his first few days after the tour in L.A. talking to record companies about a potential solo deal (Tudahl 2018 61). Seeing the writing on the wall, Prince made him one final offer: “he said, ‘We’re at a crossroads with the film, we’re making a big investment, I need you to either bail now or make a three-year commitment to stay with the program,’” Dickerson recalled (Nilsen 1999 123). If he opted to go solo, he could keep Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli as managers, and they would help him secure a record deal: “They’d done it for Morris,” he wrote, “they could do it for me” (Dickerson 234).
Dickerson ultimately opted for “door number two”: “I thought and prayed about it, and decided I couldn’t commit to another three years,” he said. “I was genuinely unhappy by that time” (Nilsen 1999 123). His decision came as little surprise to Prince, who immediately began scheming to add Dez to the Starr ★ Company stable. “He would write/co-write some stuff with me, and we’d have C, R, & F shop it,” the guitarist recounted in his memoir. “‘Great’, I thought, ‘He’s got to control my demos, too’” (Dickerson 237). Prince did offer at least one song to Dez: “Promise to Be True,” which Dickerson dutifully recorded in May, along with his own “Modernaire.” But in the end, he wrote, Prince’s management “never did get me the record deal I was promised. They tried for a while, but, when it wasn’t as easy as they first expected, they just kind of faded away” (238). Dez would make a cameo in Purple Rain playing “Modernaire”–which never otherwise saw official release–before disappearing from the Prince world altogether.
Meanwhile, his replacement was already waiting in the wings. Wendy Melvoin had been on the periphery of Prince’s camp since Lisa Coleman’s arrival in 1980. “I’ve known Lisa since we were in diapers,” Wendy told A. D. Amorosi for Wax Poetics. Both were the daughters of session musicians from L.A.’s legendary Wrecking Crew: percussionist Gary L. Coleman and pianist Mike Melvoin, respectively. The only reason why Wendy wasn’t part of Waldorf Salad, the bubblegum pop band Coleman formed as a preteen with her brother David, sister Debbie, and Wendy’s older brother Jonathan, was because she was a few years too young (Amorosi 43). From this childhood friendship, romance blossomed: “We were budding lesbians,” Melvoin told Esquire in 2017, “and by the time we were 16 we fell in love with each other” (Turman 2017).
As it happened, her love affair with Prince had begun even earlier. Melvoin heard his music for the first time when she was 14, dancing underage at the Starwood nightclub in West Hollywood. “I heard ‘Soft and Wet’ and I went up to the DJ, asking, ‘Who’s this girl? Who’s this girl?’” she told Alan Light. “And the DJ said, ‘It’s this young kid named Prince.’ I was fucking floored by him” (Light 31). When Lisa was hired to join Prince’s band two years later, it was Wendy who felt starstruck: “I was like, ‘Oh shit, does she even know who she’s playing with?’” she recalled. “The answer was absolutely no.” A year after that, Melvoin was in town when Prince and the band shot the music video for “Sexuality”: “I was standing in the room and I fell madly in love with the guy as I was watching him,” she said. “I just couldn’t believe that he was all of that and lived it, and he was it 100 percent. That was when I first met him; Lisa introduced me to him and I was infected completely” (Turman 2017).
Prince had Wendy–credited, per his usual standard, as a mononym–sing backing vocals along with Lisa, Jill Jones, and Vanity on the 1999 album track “Free”; but it wasn’t until she joined Lisa on tour later that year when he found out she could play guitar. “I was in [Lisa’s] room, and I was practicing,” Melvoin recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Apparently, Prince was walking to his room and heard… He knocked on the door, ‘Who’s playing, ‘cause I know it ain’t [Lisa].’ I played some hotshot progression, and he looked at me with that kind of twinkle in his eyes” (Star Tribune 2004). Soon, she was taking Dickerson’s place in the lengthy soundcheck jams the incumbent guitarist had started to skip.
It was at one particular soundcheck–either North Carolina in February 1983 or Radio City Music Hall in March, depending on the telling–that Melvoin played the rhythm part for “Controversy” and “the ‘Funky Little Wendy’ side of her came out,” according to Coleman (Elan 2008). Prince “was walking around the venue listening,” she told Alan Light, “and he almost ran back up onto the stage and sat at the piano, which was at the middle of the stage at that time, and started jamming. He’s like, ‘Damn, girl, is your daddy black?’ That started this romance; it was like little stars and flowers came out of his eyes” (Light 61).
That moment, Bobby Z recalled to Billboard’s Jem Aswad, was “like when you’d hear the Beatles talking about when they found Ringo. You just knew that was the future” (Aswad 2016). Dickerson, understandably, was less enthusiastic: he wrote in his memoir that he’d “always felt a bit of a ‘climbing’ vibe” from Melvoin; “it just seemed she was after something. After I stopped coming to soundchecks, I figure[d] out why… She was ‘standing in’ for me in soundchecks–rather eagerly, at that. It was a very transparent attempt to position herself, and gain Prince’s approval” (Dickerson 226). But for Bobby–and, presumably, Prince–it was a simple matter of commitment: “She had the hunger,” the drummer recalled. “Matt [Fink] and I still had the hunger, and [bassist] Mark [Brown] certainly had the hunger. Dez didn’t. Wendy was just at the absolute right place at the right time” (Nilsen 1999 123).
Prince wasted little time replacing Dickerson with Melvoin. She was on hand to add vocals and a guitar solo to his recording of the Time’s “Chocolate” in late April; she also appeared as a character in Blinn’s draft of Dreams, which reportedly made the nature of her relationship with Lisa more explicit than in the final film (Nilsen 1999 125). Her presence in the draft, dated May 23, indicates that she had been considered a member of the band for at least as long as Blinn had been writing the script.
Not everyone was thrilled by the new arrival, however. “There was some resentment in the band,” Alan Leeds, who would soon relocate to Minneapolis to oversee preparations for the film, told Light. “That she got it too easy, and the fact that she’s a take-charge person just by nature. After a while, if there was a rehearsal and Prince was late, rather than sit around, Wendy would be the one who’d say, ‘Let’s do something.’ And Mark Brown and Fink would look at her like [silent expression of disbelief]–particularly Mark” (Light 62). According to Dr. Fink, Wendy’s addition “definitely changed the whole vibe” of the group. “Dez was, like, a seasoned rock veteran at that point, a rock star in his own right, and he was a very strong element,” he recalled. Wendy, meanwhile, was barely out of high school: “I was worried at first that maybe she wasn’t ready or was too green” (63).
What Melvoin brought to the group, at least at this early stage, was primarily extramusical in nature: “Wendy brought a vulnerability that [Prince] hadn’t really been able to show,” said Jill Jones. “He was like this dirty little boy onstage before, but she kind of balanced out the animus, the female version” (Light 65). As the new band’s visual presentation took shape, Prince began styling Wendy “to be the other part of him,” Coleman recalled. “They were the same clothing size, and he’d say, ‘Wear this tonight, and I’m gonna wear this’” (64). There was also unavoidable crossover potential in the fact that his new guitarist and female alter-ego happened to be White: in fact, for the first time in the band’s history, Whites now made up the majority of the lineup.
Whether this racial (im)balance was calculated or incidental, the new band lineup–soon to be formally christened the Revolution–was one of the last pieces that needed to fall into place before Prince’s superstar metamorphosis was complete. Now that he was finally ready, he had just the song to mark the occasion.
“Baby I’m a Star” dates back to the prolific days of summer 1981: maybe not before the genesis of the movie project–as noted above, that had been in the works for a while–but certainly before Dreams and Purple Rain were twinkles in their respective screenwriters’ eyes. It was recorded, like most of Prince’s music from this period, at his Kiowa Trail home studio: the same basement space where he and Dez Dickerson would hold their fateful meeting almost two years later. According to Duane Tudahl, this early demo “contains almost all the same lyrics” as the track that eventually showed up in Purple Rain, but with “a much sparser layering of keyboards, piano, and vocal overdubs” (Tudahl 2018 96). Don Batts, who engineered the recording, described it as “absolutely magic.” Prince “was playing at his peak, almost sort of like Stevie Wonder,” he recounted. “It was an incredible[,] rocking tune and I consider it far superior” to the released version (Nilsen 1999 129).
The song, especially at this stage of its evolution, has the familiar air of Prince self-actualizing through music: just as he’d used “Uptown” to place himself at the center of a music scene he wasn’t a part of, here he projects himself toward a celebrity status he was still years away from achieving. Like another early song, 1977’s “We Can Work It Out,” the lyrics could equally be a pitch to a potential lover or a potential listener: “Hey[,] look me over,” he sings, “[T]ell me do u like what u see / [H]ey[,] I ain’t go money”–echoes, here, of “I Wanna Be Your Lover”–“but honey[,] I’m rich on personality.”
In The Beautiful Ones, Prince traces his tendency to visualize his way to success back to his childhood: “Things eye wanted 2 happen, eye would write or type.” Before he started writing songs, he recalls, he would make lists: “The list [eye was] most proud of was the one containing my girlfriends. All the girls eye liked at school were included. Whether they liked me or not was of no consequence. Eye liked them–they were on my list, so eventually they would like me.” But, he adds, “The problem with Vision Lists is that they take time. Patience is required” (Prince 2019 92). It’s thus appropriate that, even as Prince envisions himself as the star he’s in the process of becoming, he still acknowledges the work it will take to get to the top: “Everybody say nothing comes 2 easy,” he admits, before doubling down with the boast, “when u got it baby, nothing come 2 hard.”
As noted above, “Baby I’m a Star” was one of the songs Prince flagged for inclusion in his handwritten notes for the movie; it was also likely one of the 100 or so tracks he reportedly shared with director Albert Magnoli when he came on the project in June 1983. That same month, the nascent Revolution began rehearsing it–along with another song recently exhumed from early 1982, “I Would Die 4 U”–at “the Warehouse,” a converted pet food storage facility on Highway 7 in suburban St. Louis Park.
The song, and the new band lineup, finally made its public debut at First Avenue on August 3; it was this inaugural performance that would provide the basis for the master recording on Purple Rain. With the possible exception of Prince, no one that night–including engineer David Z, who taped the show from a mobile recording truck parked outside the venue–knew that they were cutting tracks for an album, much less the album that would make Prince a global superstar. But the energy is undeniable in the circulating video of the show. Over a stark beat from the man-machine hybrid of Bobby Z triggering Linn LM-1 samples with his Simmons electric drum pads, Prince calls out to the crowd: “Is the party in here tonight?” he asks, to applause. “Somebody clap your hands! Come on! Everybody! Rock the house! Do it!” He counts off the band–”One, two, three, uh!”–and the stage lights come on. As the lead line springs to life, he strides to the side of the stage and tosses five tambourines out to the crowd, before returning to the microphone and executing a perfect spinning leap: the product, one assumes, of his recent training by the Minnesota Dance Theatre, for which the show served as a benefit concert.
On stage at First Avenue, “Baby I’m a Star” comes to life in a new way. The direct address of lines like, “[B]efore the night is through / [U] will see my point of view / [E]ven if I have 2 scream and shout” was tailor-made for a live audience; and, while both Prince and the band are less kinetic here than they would be in the film–it is only two months into rehearsals, after all–they’re already nailing the dance moves Brown Mark choreographed for the song: “side step, back and forth,” with a “foot shuffle” during the lead line (Revolution 23-24). As the performance hits its peak, Prince kicks his mic stand toward the front row, pulls it back, drops to his knees, and lets out a James Brown scream. He spins, splits, and shimmies fluidly across the stage; he commands Dr. Fink to take a solo, and he does–improvising it on the spot, according to an interview with Vibe’s Keith Murphy (Tudahl 2018 121). If the 1981 demo was Prince visualizing himself as a star, then the basic track is him turning into one before our very eyes.
But his metamorphosis wasn’t fully complete. Two weeks after the First Avenue show, Prince revisited David Z’s recording at Sunset Sound in L.A., adding an ascending string part co-arranged by Lisa Coleman to the beginning and end of the basic track. Then, over almost two weeks in early September, he continued to tinker: “sweetening” his vocals, removing some stray ad-libs, and even re-recording some of Lisa’s and Dr. Fink’s synth parts. Overlaying the string part, he added a subliminal-sounding backwards message voiced by Coleman with a script that matches the song’s cocky energy: “So, like, fuck them, man,” she drawls. “What do they know? All their taste is in their mouth. Really, what the fuck do they know? Come on, baby, let’s go…crazy!”
He also added a layer of backing vocals, which Coleman had fond memories of recording: “Jill Jones and I were at the mic singing the chorus parts, ‘Staaaaaaar Wooo!’ And for some reason, we had an uncontrollable giggle attack,” she wrote in the liner notes for 2017’s Purple Rain deluxe edition. “We tried to keep singing, but by the last set of choruses we were crying, fully hysterical. Prince was really annoyed and begged us to get it together on the talk back… But we couldn’t! I think you can hear the difference in the background vocals at the end. It’s all Prince because Jill and I ran outside, never to be seen again” (Revolution 23).
In this studio-polished form, “Baby I’m a Star” was the final song in the Purple Rain film, serving as the Kid’s second encore after his redemptive performance of the title track and “I Would Die 4 U.” According to Magnoli, the song was originally intended to run under the movie’s credits, but the studio asked him to let it “play out, and then run the credits after that” (Light 157). The resulting sequence ruptures the film’s already-precarious narrative, pushing it over the edge into sheer spectacle. It begins as a Hollywood remake of the original performance–shot, for maximum hyperreality, in the same venue where the song was recorded–with Prince tossing out the tambourines and pacing back and forth across the stage. But then he breaks the fourth wall, singing the lines about seeing his point of view even if he has to scream and shout directly into the camera.
By the song’s climactic series of keyboard vamps, we’ve gone completely off the rails: Prince falls backwards into the adoring arms of the crowd, lets them push him back up, then stalks off the stage, only to reemerge from behind the speakers wearing a Zorro hat. He stands astride the speaker, places one hand on his hip, and snaps his fingers like a flamenco dancer, then jumps down and puts the hat on Wendy’s head. He pirouettes, tumbles, and splits his way through Dr. Fink’s solo, climbs a speaker, and pantomimes a flash of inspiration. Finally, he picks up a guitar and, rather than playing it, ejaculates a clear liquid out of the neck and all over the audience. Smash cut to a completely incongruous closeup of Prince looking over his shoulder; freeze frame, cut, and print.
Even after all this, however, “Baby I’m a Star” still hadn’t reached its final form. On the Purple Rain tour, the song expanded to epic proportions, with the Revolution joined onstage by opening act Sheila E and her band, plus dancer Jerome Benton (who came out to do the dances from “The Bird” and “Jungle Love” with Prince in place of the departed Morris Day), saxophonist Eric Leeds, bodyguards Greg Brooks and Wally Safford, and a rotating cast of special guests: sometimes protégées Apollonia 6, sometimes Wendy’s twin sister (and Prince’s new girlfriend) Susannah Melvoin, and often whatever famous faces happened to be in the audience that night. At one especially noteworthy show at the Inglewood Forum on February 23, 1985, Bruce Springsteen played guitar while Madonna shook a tambourine. “He’d invite every musician and their mama onstage to play it,” Brown Mark recalled. “It would turn into this absolute party song” (Revolution 23).
To match the ever-growing crowd onstage, “Baby I’m a Star” also stretched into a massive jam, accumulating a seemingly neverending chain of vamps, chants, and interpolations of everything from James Brown’s “Bodyheat” to Prince’s own “The Dance Electric.” As one of the few opportunities for improvisation in a setlist that could be stiflingly static, the elastic coda became an opportunity for the musicians to blow off a night’s worth of steam. One version filmed at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland on November 20, 1984, clocked in at 13 minutes (see above); by the end of the tour, it was routinely stretching to 20 or even 30. In 2014, Bobby Z recalled the song with the air of a battle-scarred veteran: “Stopping on the one, give me 10, give me 25 horn punches–I still can’t sleep at night sometimes, playing Simon Says with that song” (Swensson June 2014).
“Baby I’m a Star,” then, encompasses the full scope of Prince’s meteoric rise: it was the vessel into which he poured his dreams of pop stardom; the vehicle through which he made them come true; the victory lap he took to celebrate his achievement. But there is also something existential in the spectacle the song became: an endless loop of Prince on a conveyor belt of identical stadium and award show stages, doing the same dance moves he did on the big screen, and then repeating it all again the next night. By the end of the Purple Rain tour, Prince would be ready to walk away from this level of fame: before the final date in Miami on April 7, 1985, manager Steve Fargnoli would announce that it was his “last live appearance for an indeterminate number of years.” But for now, his only way through was to keep playing, stretching the boundaries of the gilded cage he’d built for himself.
Fame had been Prince’s driving motivation since he was five years old, sneaking into nightclubs to watch his father play. “Growing up, like anyone would practice their instrument, he practiced his face; he practiced what he looked like on camera,” Lisa Coleman recalled to Alan Light. “He would videotape himself in his bedroom at night, just talking or doing things, and he’d watch himself to see what he looked like. He really worked on it like he was a dancer or something, training himself for being a big star–almost the way Motown used to have the finishing school. He just decided, ‘I’ve gotta be famous’” (Light 45).
With Purple Rain, he got what he wished for. The transmedia blockbuster would rocket him to a level of global superstardom few others have experienced; it would provide the bankroll and industry clout which would enable his boundless musical experimentation during the rest of the 1980s, his struggle for independence in the following decade, and the solidification of his musical legacy in the new millennium. But it would also constrain him, typecast him, box him in to a degree not even the overt segregation of early-’80s pop music had achieved. Purple Rain loomed large over Prince until the day he died, and it continues to dominate the popular imagination even now that he is gone. See, for example, the Grammy Awards “Salute to Prince” broadcast on CBS this past April: out of 24 songs performed by an array of contemporary stars and past collaborators, seven were drawn from his 1984 blockbuster (counting the tracks by the Time).
But before it became the albatross around his neck, Purple Rain was Prince’s flashpoint: the moment when his master plan came together, the payoff for his and Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli’s and everyone else’s years of maneuvering for the elusive “crossover.” And, at least for a while, he was satisfied. Engineer Susan Rogers recalled a moment during rehearsals at the Warehouse in the fall of 1983: “He was so happy, he was dancing around,” she told Uptown. “Myself and someone else both went to ask him a question, and we both said ‘Prince!’ at the same time. He swung around on his heel and said, ‘I must be famous!’ And I looked in his face and I reali[z]ed that he was famous, and that he knew he was famous and that he was delighted to be famous” (Nilsen 1999 148-49).
It was this moment, this Prince, that we would see flashes of whenever he played “Baby I’m a Star” in the decades to come: on his periodic “greatest-hits” tours of the 1990s; at the Grammys with Beyoncé in 2004; alone on stage with his piano and a microphone in 2016. Fame, as he quickly learned, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be; but Prince never stopped being a star.