Alternate Timelines

The Dawn: How Prince’s Troubled Followup to 1999 Almost Became His Feature Film Debut

After the runaway success of his breakout album 1999, Prince had carte blanche to do almost anything he wanted. So, typical of his vaunting ambition circa 1982, he decided to follow up with both an album and a major motion picture. Sadly, the world never got to see the fruits of his cinematic vision; but the resulting double album, 1984’s The Dawn, is among the most compelling of his career.

Note: I confess that this piece, a Patreon commission from Darling Nisi, has been a long time coming–so long, in fact, that I’m pretty sure I already owe her a second commission now. Part of the reason why I took so long are the same, much-discussed reasons why I took so long for everything over the past eight months or so; but part of the reason is because her request to imagine a circa-1984 Prince without Purple Rain required a lot of thought. No Purple Rain–which I took to mean the movie as well as the album–means no “When Doves Cry,” “The Beautiful Ones,” or pivot to Top 40 success; it also means no Paisley Park (the recording complex or the vanity record label), no massive renogotiated contract (and thus no “Slave”-era faceoff) with Warner Bros., and no comeback album and greatest-hits tour conveniently timed to the 20th anniversary. So large does Prince’s first film and sixth album loom over the rest of his career, in fact, that I didn’t even try to do justice to every change its absence would have wrought; this may be the first alternate timeline I will have to revisit in the future, just so I can fully think through what the ’90s or 2000s would have looked like to a Prince detached from both the expectations and the opportunities afforded him by Purple Rain.

In inventing an alternative followup to 1999, I ended up setting a few rules for myself: First, I limited myself to the existing timeline of songs recorded between January 1983 and March 1984, so the imaginary album could feasibly share a release date with the real one. Second, I wouldn’t use any track known to have been composed specifically for the movie–so, again, no “When Doves Cry” or “The Beautiful Ones”; I technically could have used “Purple Rain,” but that seemed to go against the spirit of the exercise, so I didn’t. Third, and finally, I tried to make my fake album as distinct from the real one as possible: if what set Purple Rain apart from 1999 was its concision and pop-friendliness, then my alternate-universe version would be more even more sprawling and idiosyncratic than its predecessor. Obviously, the album I reverse-engineered from existing recordings is no replacement for an actual, cohesive project produced, arranged, composed, and performed by Prince; but I do think it’s a fun listen (and yes, I did make a version I could actually listen to).

As always, I will end with the disclaimer that everything after this introduction is completely made up and just for fun, all Photoshops are crudely and hastily done, and all resemblances to actual persons living or dead are, if not coincidental, certainly not to be taken seriously.

After the runaway success of his breakout album 1999, Prince had carte blanche to do almost anything he wanted. So, typical of his vaunting ambition circa 1982, he decided to follow up with both an album and a major motion picture. Sadly, the world never got to see the fruits of his cinematic vision; but the resulting double album, 1984’s The Dawn, is among the most compelling of his career.

We can trace the roots of the project that became The Dawn as far back as March of 1982, when Prince recruited music video director Chuck Statler to shoot a concert film of his Controversy tour date at the Met Center in Bloomington, Minnesota. He and Statler briefly toyed with adding loose narrative elements to the film, which would have been titled The Second Coming; but Prince lost interest in the project, and it was shelved permanently. The reason for his cold feet may have been because his ambition was already exceeding The Second Coming’s limited scope: During the 1999 tour in late 1982 and early 1983, Prince was often spotted writing in a purple notebook, which according to legend contained his notes for a full-fledged screenplay.

Stills from The Second Coming, Prince’s aborted first attempt at a feature film; photo stolen from Wax Poetics.

The rest of Prince’s circle would learn of his plans soon enough, when he gave his manager Bob Cavallo an ultimatum: either get him a movie deal, or lose him as a client. Cavallo dutifully kicked into gear searching for a screenwriter to translate Prince’s ideas into a usable script. He found William Blinn, a respected television writer who was at that point between seasons as Executive Producer of the TV series Fame. Blinn met with Prince a few times in the spring of 1983–first in Los Angeles, then in the artist’s hometown of Minneapolis–and he even planned to move out to the Twin Cities to finish the screenplay after the end of the 1999 tour in April. Ultimately, however, he became frustrated by Prince’s reticence and his tendency to walk out on writing sessions; the writer left the project in May, citing creative differences.

Blinn’s treatment for the film, provisionally titled Dreams, was a gritty coming-of-age tale based on Prince’s own experiences in the Minneapolis music scene. Prince, however, wanted something darker and more psychological. Following Blinn’s departure, he asked Cavallo to reach out to David Lynch, whose surrealistic 1977 debut feature Eraserhead was a favorite of his; Lynch, however, was still in the midst of shooting his ill-fated adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and didn’t return Cavallo’s call. Nicolas Roeg, an English arthouse filmmaker with a penchant for directing rock stars–including Mick Jagger in 1970’s Performance, David Bowie in 1976’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Art Garfunkel in 1980’s Bad Timing–did take a meeting; but he was put off by Prince’s increasingly wild ideas for the film, which purportedly included the suggestion that he play all three of the lead roles: the protagonist, based on himself; his rival, based on the Time’s frontman Morris Day; and his love interest, based on model/actress Vanity.

Prince onstage at First Avenue, August 3, 1983; photo stolen from the Minnesota Dance Theatre Records Performing Arts Archives, University of Minnesota.

While the movie continued to flounder in development, Prince had already started work on an album to serve as its soundtrack. On August 3, he debuted six new songs being considered for the project during a one-off show at the Minneapolis rock club First Avenue. Four of these songs–“Let’s Go Crazy,” “Computer Blue,” “Electric Intercourse,” and “I Would Die 4 U”–would make the final configuration of the album; “Baby I’m a Star” ended up on the third and final album by protégés the Time; and “Purple Rain” was given to Stevie Nicks, whose then-recent Number 5 hit “Stand Back” drew heavily from Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” and featured him (uncredited) on synthesizers. Nicks would eventually release “Purple Rain” as the second single from her 1985 album Mirror Mirror, with a scorching guitar solo played by–and, this, time, attributed to–Prince.

Of the songs debuted at First Avenue, “Computer Blue” quickly took its place as the prospective centerpiece. By the time Prince completed a studio version at the end of August, it had ballooned to over 11 minutes in length: his longest and most complex recording to date, with multiple movements, guitar solos, and spoken-word segments by both himself and bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. One section in particular–a lengthy, slightly Jim Morrison-esque monologue in which Prince’s character walks with a woman through a series of hallways named after the emotions “lust,” “fear,” “insecurity,” “hate,” and “pain”–was based directly on Prince’s notes for the film; an identical scene would appear in the first draft of the screenplay, dated in September.

Excerpt from Prince’s unfilmed screenplay for The Dawn, September 1983.

It was another lyric from “Computer Blue”–“Father, Father, where is the Dawn?”–that provided the new title for the album and film project, which was officially rechristened The Dawn in time for the aforementioned draft screenplay. By now, the film–which Prince had elected to script himself–had shifted to a kind of erotic psychodrama, loosely based on the relationship turmoil between Prince, Vanity, and his backing singer and girlfriend Jill Jones. The main conflict for the protagonist, known only as “the Kid,” was his divided loyalty between the characters of Katrina (to be played by Vanity) and Elektra (to be played by Jones). These female foils would also represent the character’s internal struggle between spirituality and carnal desire. A list of tracks being considered for The Dawn during this period included the aforementioned quartet of songs from the First Avenue date; plus the 1999-era outtakes “Lust U Always” and “Possessed”; two tracks from the discarded second Vanity 6 album, “G-Spot” and “Sex Shooter”; a re-recording of his 1981 demo “Irresistible Bitch,” which ended up being poached for the B-side of “Let’s Pretend We’re Married” in November; and a wistful synthpop number called “Katrina’s Paper Dolls,” recorded while on the road for the 1999 tour in March.

There is evidence that Prince at least briefly conceived of The Dawn as a traditional musical, with songs sung in character. Vocals for “G-Spot” were recorded by both Vanity and Jones, and the draft screenplay includes a scene where Katrina sings “Sex Shooter”; but neither these tracks nor “Wednesday,” a particularly Broadway-esque ditty written in October for Elektra to sing, would make it onto the final album. At one point, Prince even considered changing Katrina’s name to “Nicartha,” so that another new song, “Darling Nikki,” could be better woven into the story.

Instead, in November of 1983, with no director attached to the project and little interest in the script his artist had written, Cavallo admitted defeat: the movie was a nonstarter. Prince, to his manager’s considerable relief, also saw the writing on the wall, and The Dawn pivoted to a loose concept album telling what would have been the basic story of the movie. Cavallo’s new job was to ensure his artist’s total creative freedom on the project–not an impossible task, given 1999’s continued success on the charts, though a few of Prince’s upcoming decisions would put that freedom to the test. In particular, a song called “We Can Fuck,” recorded in a marathon session at Sunset Sound on New Year’s Eve 1983, caused consternation for Warner Bros.; Prince’s compromise was to change the offending word to “Funk” in the title and lyric sheet, but not in the song itself.

Prince’s handwritten lyrics for “Erotic City,” which didn’t make the final album despite the prominent reference to “the dawn”; photo stolen from Genius.

In the early months of 1984, the finished album began to take shape: “Lust U Always” and “Katrina’s Paper Dolls” were out; “Possessed” (which Prince re-recorded in March), “Darling Nikki,” and a new song, “Love and Sex,” were in. Prince was insistent that The Dawn, like its predecessor, would be a double album; but even with the extra disc to work with, he was still straining against the limits of the format. In particular, “Erotic City,” a seven-and-a-half-minute jam recorded shortly after the new version of “Possessed,” proved to be superfluous on an album with no shortage of lengthy jams; it ended up being relegated to the B-side of lead single “Let’s Go Crazy,” where it became a sizable underground club hit in its own right. Curiously, Prince actually recorded an instrumental called “The Dawn” in January, but it never appears to have been seriously considered for the album.

Side 1 of the final vinyl release of The Dawn; © Warner Bros.

The final configuration of The Dawn was completed on April 14, 1984, for release on June 25. Warner wasn’t thrilled by the album, which repeated 1999’s tendency toward murky electro-funk epics, but with less of a mitigating pop sensibility. Only two tracks, “Let’s Go Crazy” and “I Would Die 4 U,” were ultimately deemed appropriate for a single release. Both performed respectably, with the former matching the Number 8 chart placement of “Delirious” from 1999,and the latter just cracking the Top 10; but label executives largely believed Prince had squandered his opportunity to top the runaway success of “Little Red Corvette.” Critics were even less kind: a representative barb from U.K. publication Melody Maker called it “three sides of self-indulgent self-abuse, with an unconvincing religious epiphany tacked on to side four.”

Side 2 of the final vinyl release of The Dawn; © Warner Bros.

It didn’t help, of course, that The Dawn’s much-touted conceptual slant felt underdeveloped, with the only indication of the discarded film’s storyline coming in the form of a near-impenetrable prose poem Prince included in the album’s gatefold. Instead, the “story” is best experienced as a loose, impressionistic progression from spiritual and sexual tumult to divine peace. Side 1 opens with a “1999”-like premonition of apocalypse in “Let’s Go Crazy,” before flowing directly into the frenzied punk-gospel of “Love and Sex,” which asks whether physical love is possible in the “upper room” of Heaven. “Electric Intercourse,” the album’s sole ballad, finds Prince’s character giving himself over to overwhelming sexual desire; a thread that is picked up on Side 2 with “We Can Funk,” which effectively dramatizes an ecstatic sexual experience from beginning to end, complete with post-coital tears from Prince.

Side 3 of the final vinyl release of The Dawn; © Warner Bros.

For the rest of Sides 2 and 3, the album’s eroticism grows more and more tortured. “Possessed” marries Prince’s patented cyborg funk to horror tropes, culminating in a genuinely chilling moment where he repeats, “Someone’s in my body, someone’s in my body, someone’s in my body.” Side 3 makes a suite of “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki”: the former a self-flagellating morality play with Wendy and Lisa standing in as a Greek chorus; the latter an erotic phantasmagoria in which Prince “sign[s his] name on the dotted line” in a kind of BDSM-flavored Faustian pact. At this point, the clouds finally part: the sinister-sounding backwards message after “Darling Nikki,” played in reverse, reveals Prince’s multi-tracked harmonies rejoicing that “the Lord is coming soon.”

Side 4 of the final vinyl release of The Dawn; © Warner Bros.

The Dawn’s redemptive Side 4 is dominated by instrumentals, which likely began life as incidental music for the film. “Father’s Song,” a wistful reprise of the melodic guitar solo from “Computer Blue,” both gives the album a thread of continuity and gives the composer (and Prince’s actual father), John L. Nelson, a bigger slice of the publishing residuals. It is followed by “I Would Die 4 U”–the basic track for which was actually recorded at the First Avenue show almost a year earlier–in which Prince’s character finally abandons the temptations of the flesh for the higher love of Jesus Christ. The album concludes with another lengthy instrumental, “God”: a musical interpretation of the character’s spiritual apotheosis which, more than one critic snarkily observed, also sounds a bit like a softcore porn soundtrack.

While The Dawn obviously failed to come to life as a movie, Prince never fully gave up on its multimedia potential. He continued writing songs for the project even after the album was released: including a vocal version of “God,” released as the B-side of “I Would Die 4 U,” and well-regarded outtakes like “The Dance Electric,” “The Ladder,” and “Temptation.” He planned to convert his draft screenplay into a stage musical, for which The Dawn tour would serve as a dry run; but both critics and audiences were put off by the lengthy onstage conversations with God that dominated the live shows. Ultimately, Prince’s label and managers talked him into letting go of The Dawn and doing something more commercial, which resulted in 1985’s psychedelic pop-flavored Roadhouse Garden and a back-to-basics tour highlighting his band the Revolution. When Prince finally made his big-screen debut, it was with a much different and less personal role: as the Goblin King in the 1986 Jim Henson fantasy film Labyrinth.

Prince talks to God during the controversial The Dawn tour in 1985; photo by Michael Ochs.

It’s tempting to speculate about what might have been had Prince’s Hollywood ambitions gone according to plan. Prince, of course, would go on to have a perfectly respectable career: penning hits like “Purple Rain,” “Raspberry Beret,” and “Manic Monday” for himself and others; joining a number of other ’80s stars to record “We Are the World”; releasing a series of critically-acclaimed albums; and yes, appearing in the occasional film and television show. But at the beginning of 1983, he seemed poised for a rarefied level of success which a project as challenging and idiosyncratic as The Dawn ultimately couldn’t achieve. One gets the sense that, if he’d only met the right director or been willing to budge a bit on his artistic vision, he may have ascended to the superstardom enjoyed by contemporaries like Michael Jackson and Madonna.

Yet at the same time, despite its initial critical drubbing, The Dawn has developed a cult reputation and sense of mystique which a more mainstream-friendly effort may not have. Its use of cutting-edge electronic sounds to explore spiritual and sexual torment has inspired generations of left-of-center rock and R&B musicians, from Nine Inch Nails to Blood Orange. As an album, it remains perhaps Prince’s most unfettered, uncompromising artistic statement. In the end, the legacy of The Dawn may be that, when poised at the precipice of art and commerce, Prince chose art; and on the strength of music this ambitious and fascinating, it’s hard to fault him for that choice.

(Thank you, again, to Darling Nisi for commissioning this post and then patiently waiting for me to get around to waiting for it. I hope it lives up to your expectations. Thank you, also, to everyone who keeps reading these; I remain pleasantly surprised that posts as proudly stupid as these ones actually have an audience. Finally, a big thank you to Arthur Turnbull and Jason Breininger for supporting the D / M / S / R Patreon this week. Both Arthur and Jason, as you probably know, are also experienced content creators: Arthur with his excellent podcast The Music Snobs, and Jason with his Press Rewind podcast and blog, the former of which I have had the honor of guesting on several times. Knowing that people whose work I respect and enjoy are also reading and supporting my work is, honestly, even better than the extra dollars of patronage–though I’ll obviously take those, too.)

4 replies on “The Dawn: How Prince’s Troubled Followup to 1999 Almost Became His Feature Film Debut”

Brilliantly blurs the lines of reality vs. fantasy. My favorite scene in The Dawn is when Katrina embarrassingly tries to buy batteries at the store Elektra is working at for her day job. Hilarity ensues.

Lmao, the best thing is that scene would absolutely have been in a real Prince movie… if there’s one thing he loved, it was a tonally incongruous comedic interlude.

It’s been 84 years….LOOOL!

Totally down for him to be the Goblin King in Labyrinth! I love this concept of him fully leaning into the art side of things without much thought about positioning himself in a more marketable way. This is going to take a couple of reads to fully absorb! Thank you so much for being willing to do the work!

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