(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 2014 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 2014 67).
The “young man” turned out to be Albert Magnoli: a 31-year-old graduate of the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, whose final thesis–Jazz, a dramatic short about three Los Angeles musicians–had won a student Academy Award. Eager to work with Foley again, Magnoli promised Cavallo he’d put in a good word for him; but he may have slightly oversold the director’s enthusiasm. “I told Cavallo that Jamie was a massive [Prince] fan,” Magnoli told Light. “I ran across the parking lot and called Jamie in New York and said it was great, I had found us our next film. And he said to me, ‘Who is Prince?’” (Light 2014 68).
In the end, Foley became the latest in a long line of directors to pass on Dreams; according to Magnoli, his blunt assessment of the script was, “It’s terrible, and I will not do it.” This left Magnoli to break the bad news. By his own account, it didn’t go well: Cavallo “went into a fit of sorts–he said, ‘I don’t understand, I’ve sent the script out and they’re all passing on it. I was doing everything correctly. Why isn’t this working?’” (Light 2014 68).
Reasoning that, even as a Hollywood neophyte himself, he was still more of an expert than Cavallo, Magnoli agreed to read the screenplay and give notes. They met for breakfast in early June, at a Du-par’s diner in the San Fernando Valley. At this point, Cavallo told Light, he offered the unproven director a chance to helm the film himself. To his chagrin, Magnoli also passed. “I fucking went crazy,” Cavallo recalled. “I [said], ‘How the fuck do you pass? Why?’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s so square.’ I said, ‘I know it’s square–can you do something about it? Do you have any ideas?’” (Light 2014 69).
As a matter of fact, he did. “I looked at him and I just started talking, and in five to seven minutes, I pitched him Purple Rain,” Magnoli told Light. “And I’m an excitable guy; I was jumping up in the air, getting down on the ground” (Light 2014 70). Cavallo’s recollection of the pitch was less spontaneous–in his telling, it happened at a second meeting, a week later–but equally athletic. Basically, he said, Magnoli acted out the whole movie right there in the diner: “standing up, jumping up and down” (69).
Magnoli’s pitch hooked Cavallo from its first sequence: “He said, ‘Take the ending of The Godfather and make it the opening of our picture.’ Prince is doing a song, the elevator comes up, the girl is coming from the airport, hustling her way in–all the characters are introduced, and you keep cutting back to the stage… he described that scene, and I went nuts” (Light 2014 70). In short, Magnoli’s vision was everything Blinn’s “square,” “TV” script was not: bold, kinetic, and attuned to the rhythms of pop music; a perfect match for 1983’s newly post-MTV youth culture. And, while he didn’t know it yet, Prince already had just the right song for the score.
“Then huge CU of EYES opening, gazing
into mirror, HAND applying makeup,
sudden BLACKNESS, then–”
“That’s right… a world ofDraft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
You can always see the sun–
Day or night.”
“Let’s Go Crazy” was initially tracked on May 18, 1983, at Prince’s Kiowa Trail home studio. But according to Allen Beaulieu, the seed for the song had been planted the previous fall, during a jam session in St. Paul where the photographer sat in with Prince and the Time’s Jimmy Jam, Terry Lewis, and Jellybean Johnson. At some point, Beaulieu caught Prince’s ear with a staccato, two-chord garage rock riff. Later that evening, he recalled to journalist Jim Walsh, “Prince took me out to his house in Chanhassen… he recorded me right there, plugged me into his board.” Prince asked the amateur guitarist what he wanted in exchange for the riff; Beaulieu responded, “How ’bout I get a copy of the album before anybody else does? Just give me a cassette” (Beaulieu 207). The next day, Prince’s assistant showed up at Beaulieu’s house with a rough mix of 1999, and the rest is history.
It’s reasonable, of course, to take Beaulieu with a grain of salt–especially now, when so many former members of Prince’s circle are coming out of the woodwork to claim their tiny piece of the genius that begat Purple Rain. But his story is also consistent with much of what we already knew about Prince: i.e., his magpie tendencies and, shall we say, strategic approach to songwriting credits. It seems likely that Beaulieu was just another local musician who had to learn the lesson, as the Time’s Monte Moir once put it, not to “breathe or play a note, or you might find it on Warner Bros. Records” (Nilsen 1999 69).
Besides, the riff was only one part of the puzzle. While the May 18 demo of “Let’s Go Crazy” is not widely circulating, sessionographer Duane Tudahl describes it as having “most of the elements” of the finished song, “including the opening narration over a bed of organ music.” There’s also at least one element that wouldn’t make it into future renditions–namely, “a few seconds of Prince shouting out a playful affirmation of joy” (Tudahl 2018 86).
Both the narration and, presumably, the “playful affirmation” are overt indications of “Let’s Go Crazy”’s roots in gospel music. As cultural critic Touré writes, Prince opens the song “in the pulpit,” “laying out his theology in the form of the coolest sermon ever heard on top-forty radio” (Touré 117). Over a sustained, synthesized organ chord, his voice drenched in reverb, he playfully adopts the language of a traditional Christian wedding ceremony: “Dearly beloved / we r gathered here today…” But rather than joining together a couple in holy matrimony, his task–and ours–is simply “2 get through this thing called life”: persisting through the trials of the material world toward the promise of a better “afterworld” to come. “[A]nd if de-elevator tries 2 bring u down,” the Reverend Nelson counsels, “go crazy / punch a higher floor.”
More than just an idiosyncratic turn of phrase–right up there with “the purple banana” and “that shrink in Beverly Hills… Dr. Everything’ll be alright”–the “de-elevator” is also Prince’s thinly-veiled secularization of the devil, the Abrahamic religions’ ultimate personification of evil. In fact, the artist told comedian Chris Rock in 1997, the whole song “was about God and Satan… I had to change those words up ’cause you can’t say God on the radio, [but] ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ was God to me: it was, you know, stay happy, stay focused, and you can beat the de-elevator” (VH1 1997). The song telegraphs as much through its use of call and response, a staple of the African American church tradition: Upon each refrain, Reverend Nelson asks his congregation, “r we gonna let de-elevator / bring us down[?]” and receives the emphatic response, “oh, no. Let’s Go!” Even the notion of “going crazy” itself, Touré writes, can be read as a “reference to ecstatic Pentacostalism” (Touré 118).
Yet if, like the earlier “1999,” “Let’s Go Crazy” is a gospel song at heart, it also shares with its predecessor a knack for connecting ancient Christian eschatology with the late 20th-century zeitgeist. In “1999,” Biblical visions of apocalypse provided a convenient analogue for contemporary fears of nuclear annihilation. “Let’s Go Crazy,” meanwhile, seems less concerned with the end times per se than with the essential inevitability of death: “We’re all excited / But we don’t know why,” Prince sings, “Maybe it’s cuz / we’re all gonna die.” The solution, in both cases, is a fervent joie de vivre that dovetails well with the hedonistic ethos of mid-’80s secular culture: “if I gotta die I’m gonna listen to / My body tonight”; “u better live now / before the grim reaper come knocking on your door.” As Stereogum’s Tom Breihan writes in his blog series “The Number Ones,” “You don’t have to hear religion in ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ to love it. You only have to hear excitement” (Breihan 2020).
At least according to Tudahl, however, that “excitement” was missing from Prince’s solo recording: “the pacing and energy of the entire song lacks what the released version, which was recorded with the entire band, would eventually contain” (Tudahl 2018 86). When Prince brought “Let’s Go Crazy” in for the band to learn at rehearsal, they were similarly nonplussed. Keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled it as “a typical rock riff” in a 2017 interview with Jon Bream of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “I thought it was kind of silly,” she admitted, but “[t]he more we played it, the more it developed into a sparkly, tough song” (Bream 2017). “By the time Prince hit the solo section and the outro of this song,” she adds in the liner notes for the deluxe edition of Purple Rain, “it became, and remains one of, the most blazing moments on the album and the film–not to mention when we played it live” (Revolution 14).
“Prince is BACKSTAGE, practicing spins in
front of the mirror. The other MEMBERS
of his GROUP are scattered throughout
the room. BOBBY sits off to the side,
his drumsticks tapping against his knee.
MATT puts on his doctor’s smock. LISA
and WENDY finish applying their makeup.
MARK runs his fingers up and down the
neck of his bass guitar.
“Suddenly a STAGEHAND pokes his head intoDraft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
the room, holds the door open as Prince
and his band cut quickly to the stage.”
Prince and the newly-christened Revolution premiered “Let’s Go Crazy” at First Avenue in Minneapolis on August 3, 1983. Like the other songs making their debut that night–“Computer Blue,” “Electric Intercourse,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and of course, “Purple Rain”–it felt tailor-made for the stage. Already, it was a hell of a set-opener: In circulating recordings of the performance, there’s a palpable electricity in the room as keyboardist Dr. Fink holds that not-yet-famous opening chord. After what feels like a small eternity, Prince crosses the darkened stage; a swell of cheers comes up from the crowd. When he begins his sermon, a spotlight illuminates him from behind. The energy builds as Bobby Z’s electric drums kick in; by the time the stage lights come on and the band launches into the main riff, any hesitation toward the new song has melted away.
The Revolution’s inaugural performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” clearly delivered the “excitement” the home studio demo had lacked. But while Prince would famously source the final album versions of “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and “Purple Rain” directly from the First Avenue show, he still wasn’t satisfied with the opening track. His solution was to try and harness the live energy in a more controlled environment. He tasked engineer David Leonard and technicians Susan Rogers and Rick “Hawkeye” Henriksen with creating an ad hoc recording studio at the Revolution’s rehearsal space on Highway 7 in St. Louis Park: a former pet food storage facility and auto parts store known simply as “the Warehouse.”
“I was told to make a control room right in the middle of a warehouse–which breaks every rule in the book, but I hadn’t been an engineer: I knew nothing about record making,” Rogers told Light. “So we brought in the console, threw a square of carpet on the cement floor: ‘All right, this is where the control room will be.’ There was no isolation or anything” (Light 2014 97). But what the Warehouse lacked in professional standards, it made up for in ambience. When the band re-recorded “Let’s Go Crazy,” just four days after the First Avenue gig, it was in the midst of a “full-on production rehearsal with lights and sound,” Leonard recalled. “It’s almost like it was supposed to be done the night of the show, but we were recording it after the fact” (Brown 2010).
The Warehouse gave “Let’s Go Crazy” the live sound Prince wanted, while also allowing him to polish the song’s hooks to a gleam. On the final recording, the faux-Farfisa keyboard line and “oh no. Let’s Go!” call-and-response–both, as Anil Dash has observed, clever nicks from the J. Geils Band’s 1982 hit “Freeze-Frame”–sound positively Top 40-ready (Dash 2014). Yet it also feels spontaneous: Bobby Z told Diffuser that the climactic guitar solo–where the rest of the band drops out so Prince can shred unaccompanied like Eddie Van Halen–“could have been the first take. That Vegas ending, and that guitar solo, I can only remember one or two takes. He nailed the guitar solo, and we nailed the ending, and that was done” (Wilkening “Prince Plugs” 2017).
Re-recording “Let’s Go Crazy” also enabled Prince to extend the track to fit its place in the film. After witnessing its debut at First Avenue, Magnoli knew it was “the perfect song” for his opening montage; but at only about four minutes, it wasn’t long enough to fill the seven-minute sequence he had planned. To make up the difference, Magnoli told Tudahl, Prince “basically punched into the middle” of the song and “added a new middle, which brought it to its length” (Tudahl 2018 126). His additions included a pair of new, instrumental bridges with more guitar pyrotechnics; an atonal piano solo over a grinding hard rock progression; and a funky rhythm guitar vamp similar to the one he’d added to the extended version of “Drive Me Wild” by Vanity 6. The piano solo was courtesy of Dr. Fink, who took the song’s instruction to “go crazy” literally and “started randomly smacking the piano[,] not really intending to play anything” (126-127). Prince was taken enough with the performance that he mimed it in the movie himself, batting at the keys of his purple Yamaha CP-80 before playfully lounging across the lid and pretending to play with his feet.
With the track complete and its place in the film secured, there was only one thing left to do. Both on the original lyric sheet (see above) and in Magnoli’s draft screenplay, the song was called “Let’s Get Crazy”; but that title had already been taken by someone close to home. André Cymone, now plying his trade as a solo artist and songwriter, had written and produced a handful of tracks for Evelyn “Champagne” King’s album Face to Face; one of those tracks was called (wait for it) “Let’s Get Crazy.” While Cymone’s “Crazy” has little in common with Prince’s–it’s, unsurprisingly, closer in style to the futuristic synth-funk of his own Livin’ in the New Wave and Survivin’ in the 80’s–His Royal Badness wasn’t taking any chances. As Cymone recalled to Jon Bream, “he called and said ‘I got a song [called] “Let’s Go Crazy.” I don’t want you to think I took it from you’” (Bream 2016). In a way, though, he needn’t have worried: By the time the rechristened “Let’s Go Crazy” came out in June of 1984, “Let’s Get Crazy” would be a distant memory.
“Prince brings ‘Let’s Get Crazy’ to aDraft screenplay for Purple Rain by Albert Magnoli, 1983
rousing, blistering end. Suddenly the
stage is plunged into darkness. The
CROWD goes WILD!”
The opening sequence of Purple Rain–the very one Albert Magnoli acted out for Bob Cavallo in a San Fernando Du-par’s in June of 1983–is pure sensory overload. Just like the First Avenue show, it begins with the sound of cheers over a darkened stage (or, in this case, the Warner Bros. logo). A sepulchral voice–that of real-life First Avenue employee Joseph Ferraro–intones, “Ladies and gentlemen… the Revolution.” The Kid appears, silhouetted larger than life against a brilliant backlight. Shots of clubgoers kitted out in New Romantic finery flit across the screen, growing faster to match the pulse of the opening drumbeat. We see flashes of the Kid’s eye opening in extreme closeup, like the 1999 album label come to life; a lace-gloved hand adjusting the faders on a mixing board; the Kid licking his lips, applying makeup, stroking his closely-manicured goatee.
As the Revolution launches into “Let’s Go Crazy,” two parallel stories begin to unfold. In the first, a beautiful woman (Apollonia Kotero) pulls up in a taxicab and skips out on her fare; she uses her cash to rent a seedy room across from First Avenue, hustles her way into the club, and stares rapt as the Kid take his climactic guitar solo. Meanwhile, in the second, the leader of a rival band (Morris Day) takes a Cadillac from his cramped apartment to the club; he preens in a mirror proffered by his henchman (Jerome Benton), then heads in to meet up with the rest of his group.
Both of these stories are essentially linear, playing out in parallel before convening on the Revolution’s performance. But they’re also intercut with more scenes of Prince/the Kid that rupture the film’s narrative before it’s even begun. Prince, as we’ve established, is onstage, playing “Let’s Go Crazy”; but he’s also backstage, blowing out a candle in the dressing room; then he’s in front of the venue, buzzing past a group of screaming concertgoers in a motorcycle with his “Madcat” Telecaster strapped to his back; then he’s backstage again, practicing his stage moves in the mirror. The montage does bear a passing resemblance to the famous “baptism sequence” toward the end of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972); it just happens to be a heretofore unseen version that intersperses its parallel baptism and mob killing scenes with unrelated shots of Al Pacino wailing on a guitar.
Not making a lick of sense, however, was never going to be an obstacle for Purple Rain. Thanks to a combination of Magnoli’s kinetic editing, Donald E. Thorin’s vivid cinematography, and (especially) Prince’s magnetic screen presence, the movie is electrifying–and never more so than in its introductory assault on the senses. There are plenty of legitimate claims to make for the precise moment when Prince became a superstar; but by any metric, the “Let’s Go Crazy” sequence of Purple Rain has to be close to the top. Within two months of the movie’s release, the song had become his second consecutive Number 1 pop single.
What “Let’s Go Crazy” signifies now is a little tougher to parse. Like “Purple Rain,” it remained a staple of Prince’s live sets for every tour except the ones from which it was pointedly excluded: a sparkling token of his mid-’80s imperial phase, to be trotted out with varying levels of obligation. When he played the Super Bowl in 2007, it was (along with “Baby I’m a Star,” a fragment of “1999,” and again, “Purple Rain”) one of only four original songs in the setlist. In the years since Prince’s passing in 2016, its stature in his catalogue has only grown. Amiable pop-R&B star Bruno Mars performed a version in full Purple Rain cosplay at the 2017 Grammy Awards; another TV tribute, last year’s Let’s Go Crazy: The Grammy Salute to Prince, opened with a reverent rendition by Recording Academy darlings Gary Clark, Jr. and H.E.R.
Yet all of this ubiquity has dulled the song’s edge; the “excitement” Breihan highlighted is still there, but it’s easier to miss. When “Let’s Go Crazy” was used in a 2018 ad for Capital One credit cards, it was less a reminder of the song’s ongoing cultural relevance than of its recuperability under capitalism. Its appearance in a bravura action scene in Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) was more artistically sound, but no more of a boon for Prince’s legacy than the first Kingsman’s use of “Freebird” had been for Lynyrd Skynyrd.
That’s why I want to end here by giving Prince the final word. Around 2013–just in time for the song’s 30th anniversary–Prince and his all-woman power trio 3RDEYEGIRL started playing a lumbering heavy rock version of “Let’s Go Crazy,” stripped of its ’80s pop gloss and seemingly inspired by Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return).” This “slow version” of “Let’s Go Crazy” wasn’t “better” than the original; but it was a reminder that great songs are living, breathing things, no matter how much our nostalgia or banking commercials or the ephemeral nature of pop music fandom try to encase them in purple amber. Maybe this, after all, is what Prince meant by “look 4 the purple banana ’til they put us in the truck.” Probably not; but maybe!
Folks, as I’m sure you’ve probably heard, there’s a “new” Prince album coming out in July! I plan to have a writeup of the title track, which is now available on streaming services, by this time next week (or, if you’re reading this after the Patreon exclusivity is over, yesterday). After that, it’s on to “I Would Die 4 U,” but I gotta level with you guys: these Purple Rain posts are looooong, and I just don’t think I’m capable of cranking out one a week without doing serious harm to my work and/or family life. My goal for April is to get one more proper post out the door; after that, the next two posts are “Purple Rain” and “Computer Blue,” so I’m hesitant to promise both of those in May. What I will say is that I’m working hard to make sure what I do produce is up to my usual standards; hopefully we’re all on the same page. Thanks so much for your support, and I’ll see you soon.