It’s been about two and a half years since news first broke of an official Prince documentary, to be produced by Netflix in collaboration with the artist’s estate. Since that time, the project has been mostly radio-silent–with the notable exceptions of the 2019 departure of original director, Ava DuVernay (13th), and her (still officially unconfirmed) replacement by Ezra Edelman (O.J.: Made in America) last year. So, I was intrigued to learn about Mr. Nelson on the North Side: another, independently-produced documentary which premiered online last weekend. If nothing else, the film’s focus on the beginnings of Prince’s life and artistic development in North Minneapolis promised to be an interesting change of pace–covering territory (both literal and figurative) that remains underexplored in Prince biographies across all media.
I wasn’t planning on posting anything today; my next “proper” post, on “I Would Die 4 U,” won’t be finished until next week, and I usually save my year-in-review posts for the actual anniversary of the blog in June. But it suddenly hit me that the five-year anniversary of Prince’s passing on April 21, 2016, demands more than just business as usual; and so here are what I fully intend to be my brief (yeah, right) thoughts on the subject.
Prince and I were on a break at the beginning of 2016. To be honest, we were usually on a break. I took what I would call an orthodox critical perspective on Prince, or what hardcore fans might recognize as the Questlove school of thought: I considered his “peak” era (roughly 1980–88) to be among the most incredible, groundbreaking music ever recorded, while his later work alternately underwhelmed, baffled, and only occasionally moved me. My first deep dive into his catalogue, during college, happened to coincide with 2004’s Musicology album and tour; so I followed him in real time for a few years, but fell off by the end of the decade. Years later, 2014’s ART OFFICIAL AGE pulled me back in–only for 2015’s HITnRUN Phase One, and a wasted free trial for TIDAL, to push me back out with a quickness. I distinctly remember driving to my job at IKEA (!) in Northern Virginia when the announcement of the Baltimore “Rally 4 Peace” came on the radio, and I was struck with the sudden urge to pull over and try to get tickets; but I was broke (IKEA, remember), and anyway Prince toured every couple of years. I’d catch him next time.
That’s the thing about Prince: There was always a next time–until, of course, there wasn’t. His passing, a little less than a year after I skipped the Baltimore show, threw into sharp relief just how much I’d taken him for granted. And I think that’s why I felt his absence so acutely: more than any other public figure–even David Bowie, whose own death just three months earlier felt in retrospect like a dress rehearsal for the main event; more even, I should probably be ashamed to say, than many of my own family members. Within hours of hearing the terrible news on April 21, I was making my way through his albums from beginning to end–catching up on everything I’d missed, or simply glossed over, when he was still here and his music felt like an infinitely renewable resource. Within days, I had started to write this very blog.
I’ve shared before that Dance / Music / Sex / Romance began as part sustained writing project, part act of public mourning. Five years later, though, I no longer think “mourning” is the right word. Prince’s death was a shock and a tragedy, no doubt; but his life was almost impossibly rich, lived to the fullest extent and only ever on his own terms. I understand and respect that for many fans, April 21 will always be an occasion for grief; but for me–someone who never knew Prince and, frankly, didn’t appreciate him enough while he was with us–I feel that the best thing I can do is to celebrate his work, to keep it alive in whatever small way I can.
In the past five years, I’ve also found myself focusing less on what we lost on April 21, 2016, and more on what we gained. This project–but really, Prince–has introduced me to dozens of people from around the world. Some I now consider friends; some are people whose work I’ve admired and who are now, unexpectedly, in my orbit; some are people whose work I didn’t know before, but now value greatly. The sad truth is that I probably wouldn’t have met any of them if Prince were still here. And while I obviously would have preferred for us to meet under different circumstances, I’d be hard-pressed to trade their presence in my life for anything.
When Prince died five years ago today, he left a space for the rest of us to fill. D / M / S / R remains my way of filling that space. It is, in the grand scheme of things, an insignificant one: The real measure of Prince’s legacy is in something like his funding of Black Lives Matter, the movement which effectively made possible yesterday’s historic guilty verdict for the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. But there’s also something to be said for giving his music the sustained, exhaustive critical examination it deserves; and, while I’m far from the only person doing this, I’m proud to be among their number. Five years ago, I stopped taking Prince for granted; now, I’m spending as many years as it takes encouraging others to do the same.
Even after the news was leaked by a French fansite earlier this year, I was still pleasantly surprised when the Prince Estate confirmed the shelved 2011 album Welcome 2 America for official release in July. Up until now, I’ve found the Estate’s posthumous release strategy to be laudable but predictable: alternating between expanded reissues from Prince’s critical and commercial peak (Purple Rain, 1999, Sign “O” the Times) and sure-thing one-offs engineered for mainstream attention (i.e., the Originals compilation of Prince’s versions of the hits he wrote for others). Even the closest thing to an odd one out, 2018’s Piano & A Microphone 1983, had the distinct commercial advantage of coming from the sessions for his most popular album.
Welcome 2 America, however, is something different: a complete album of almost entirely unreleased material, from a period of Prince’s career that even some of his biggest fans neglect. Case in point, well, me; I’d followed along with Prince’s contemporary music for 2004’s Musicology and 2006’s 3121, but fell off after 2007’s Planet Earth and 2009’s Lotusflow3r/MPLSound/Elixer threefer left me cold (for the record, I’ve since come around on Lotusflow3r and, thanks to friend of the blog Darling Nisi, even Elixer; Planet Earth and MPLSound, not so much). When the next album, 20Ten, wasn’t officially released in the U.S., I didn’t even care enough to try and pirate the MP3s. All of which is to say that Welcome 2 America is even newer to me than to many of the active fans who were following the news of its planned release at the time–and while that was my loss in 2011, a decade later it’s now my gain.
(1) Black Screen
“SOUND under: MUSIC building in INTENSITY as–”
“Dearly belov’edDraft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
We are gathered here today
To get through this thing
William Blinn submitted two drafts of Dreams–the working title for Prince’s feature film debut–in May of 1983. There wouldn’t be a third: Blinn’s main gig as Executive Producer of the Fame TV series had been renewed, and he no longer had time to spare. Still, Prince’s management deemed the script good enough to shop: Bob Cavallo recalled thinking, “It’s a little TV, it’s a little square… but it’s a good idea, and I figured the director will rewrite it anyway” (Light 67).
But therein lay the rub: even with a screenplay in hand, Cavallo still couldn’t find a director. After a few dead ends, an industry contact recommended he see an early cut of Reckless: a steamy youth drama by first-time director James Foley about a romance between a motorcycle-riding rebel (Aidan Quinn) and a cheerleader from the other side of the tracks (Daryl Hannah). “I go to screen this movie and I’m the only one in the theater,” Cavallo recalled to journalist Alan Light. “I see it, I walk out, and a young man comes up to me and says, ‘What did you think?’ I said, ‘Well, I thought it was pretty good, and that’s really all I thought. I thought the editing was good.’ He’s like, ‘Really? Good. I did that’” (Light 67).