On August 1, 1983, Albert Magnoli arrived in Minneapolis to finish his revised screenplay for Purple Rain. He spent his first week in town interviewing the prospective cast members, including Prince’s band, the Time, and Vanity 6, to mine their real-life relationships for dramatic potential. As he explained to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, “My research was for me to sit down and say, ‘Okay, I have a scene I’m developing between you, Wendy, Lisa, and Prince, and you’re very angry at him. And you’re in the dressing room and you’re about to go on and you want to know if he hear[d] your music. Give me what you feel like?’ And they start, ‘Oh well, yeah that happens all the time!’ So all their shit comes up because they’ve been in that with him” (Tudahl 2018 117).
The director supplemented his research by sitting in on band rehearsals and attending the August 3 First Avenue performance where the film’s title song received its debut. Mostly, though, he wrote: spending his days in a motel room drafting in longhand, “from seven to seven… with a ruler and pencil, on paper. Then a secretary would come in and type everything up from that day in script form” (Light 2014 91). By the end of the month, when Magnoli flew back to Los Angeles to finish editing James Foley’s Reckless, his first draft was complete.
But the screenplay was not Magnoli’s only, or biggest, obstacle: With just two months to go before Purple Rain was due to enter production, Prince’s management had yet to secure any formal financial backing. “We were trying to get studios to make [the] movie, which means they put up all the money,” recalled manager Bob Cavallo, but “no studio would step forward… There was no funding. It was our funding. [Warner Bros. Records chief executive] Mo [Ostin] likes to think he financed it, but it was Prince’s money in the pipeline. I took all the money that Mo gave us for royalties on 1999 and other stuff he’d done and we began making the movie with our money” (Tudahl 2018 118).
As far as Magnoli was concerned, this was a good thing. “I felt that once a studio is involved, then you have the studio interference thing,” he told Rolling Stone’s David Browne. But the director’s argument for independence fell on deaf ears: “I said, ‘We have a million dollars,’ and Bob said, ‘If we don’t have to spend our own money that would be fantastic’” (Browne 2016). Reluctantly, he joined Cavallo, Joe Ruffalo, and Steve Fargnoli to shop the new screenplay around Hollywood.
Their first port of call was the Geffen Film Company, a division of Warner Bros. Pictures recently founded by music mogul David Geffen. According to Cavallo, Geffen was intrigued, but cautious: “He says, ‘I’ll make it for six [million dollars] instead of seven, and we can’t start now; we have to start after you do another tour,’” he told journalist Alan Light. “I knew what he was saying, but knowing Prince, it would be ‘Fuck him’” (Light 2014 102).
Negotiations with Indigo Productions–another nascent imprint founded by actor and comedian Richard Pryor and headed by football star, actor, and activist Jim Brown–also stalled, for unclear reasons. As Magnoli tells it, the sticking point was over Brown’s reluctance to work with a non-Black crew: he “took one look at us and said, ‘What is this, the Italian mafia in front of me? I wouldn’t make this movie with you clowns. I’m not making a movie with a black artist and no black people’” (Light 2014 103). More likely, however, the deal was a victim of instability within the company: by the end of the year, Brown and three other employees would be dismissed for “creative differences,” and Indigo would later fold before the release of its first film.
In the end, of course, Prince’s movie debut would come out under the same corporate umbrella as his music; yet, strange as it may sound in our present age of transmedia synergy, a release under Warner Bros. Pictures was never a foregone conclusion. Magnoli likes to tell the story of a disastrous first meeting with Warner’s executive vice president, Mark Canton, who allegedly thought Prince wasn’t a big enough star to carry the movie: “the first thing [he] said was, ‘Is it possible to ask if John Travolta can play Prince?’” the director recounted. “I looked at [Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli] and thought, ‘This is what I’m talking about. Welcome to this world’” (Browne 2016).
Putting aside Magnoli’s well-known talent for embellishment–not to mention the fact that a John Travolta-starring Purple Rain is, objectively, the funniest idea ever–Canton’s (alleged!) suggestion does make some cocaine-addled, Hollywood kind of sense. At the time, Travolta would have been fresh in movie executives’ minds for his role in the notorious Saturday Night Fever sequel Staying Alive: a critical disaster that had nevertheless opened on 1,660 screens and grossed over $12 million in mid-July, breaking the record set by 1982’s The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas for the biggest opening weekend ever for a musical. With its focus on the gritty lives of working-class urban youth in a musical subculture, Magnoli’s Purple Rain script also bore more than a trace of the original Saturday Night Fever’s DNA.
Much to the director’s chagrin, however, that Saturday Night Fever-esque grittiness was also a point of contention for W.B. “The development people came to me and said, ‘The script is sexist and misogynistic and violent and erotic, and it puts down women,’” he recalled. “They’re looking at a PG-13 concept” (technically PG, since the PG-13 rating wasn’t added until mid-1984) (Browne 2016). But Magnoli insisted his vision justified an “R”: “I said, ‘This film is going to be junk unless kids know that Hollywood has nothing to do with it’” (Light 2014 104).
Magnoli ultimately got his way thanks to some string-pulling from two different sources: veteran talent agent Michael Ovitz and Mo Ostin from Warner Bros. Records. Ostin “went to the movie people and told them how strongly we felt about Prince, how important he was to the company overall, and that we expected significant success in a sound track they would participate in,” he told Light. Meanwhile, Cavallo called in a favor from Ovitz: “I gave Mike Earth, Wind and Fire and Prince when he started his personal appearance department,” the manager recalled. “So I told him in return for that, he has to help me get this movie” (Light 2014 104). What cinched the deal, at least according to Ostin, was his division’s agreement to shoulder some of the film’s expenses: “we told the film company that we–the record company–would guarantee everything that went over budget,” he recalled to Billboard (Aswad “Former” 2016).
With a seven-million-dollar budget finally secured from Warner, preproduction on Purple Rain was moving full steam ahead–adding a new layer of urgency as Prince continued to tinker with the music. During the month of September, while Magnoli was in Minneapolis hiring a crew, the movie’s star was at Sunset Sound in L.A., putting the finishing touches on “I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” “Purple Rain,” and “Darling Nikki.” Finally, on September 20, he capped off the sessions with an entirely new song: a piano-led slow-burner called “The Beautiful Ones.”
While the movie concept had exuded a general influence over Prince’s songwriting since at least 1982, “The Beautiful Ones” was his first time writing with a particular scene in mind. That scene–a pivotal moment of connection between the characters played by Prince and Vanity while she watches him perform onstage–appears in Magnoli’s draft of Purple Rain, set to “Electric Intercourse.” But the director wasn’t satisfied with the way the song worked dramatically: “It didn’t fit into the film the way it needed to,” he told Tudahl. “The music that fits into that film, as you see it, is relatively seamless. You never question it. And that’s a hard thing to achieve” (Tudahl 2018 176). Prince agreed; and, as he later recalled in a fan Q&A on his official website, “once [‘]The Beautiful Ones[’] was completed, it was always the ballad of choice” (Love4OneAnother.com November 1997).
As good as “Electric Intercourse” is, it’s easy to see why he made that call. “The Beautiful Ones” shares with its predecessor a lush, romantic feel, with acoustic Steinway piano gliding across a landscape of electric drums and keyboards. But where the earlier track placed its arrangement in service of a basic seduction scenario, this one employs a wider emotional palette. Prince begins with a simple plea, maybe a little on the brusque side: “Baby, baby, baby / What’s it gonna be? / baby, baby, baby / is it him or is it me?” As the song unfolds, he gradually sheds his macho pretense, confessing his love and even (albeit obliquely) proposing marriage. By the end–well, we all know what happens at the end: a startling display of emotion as the singer, “begging down on [his] knees,” throws all his cards down on the table: “Do you want him? / Or do you want me? / ‘Cause I want you.”
It’s those final moments that make “The Beautiful Ones” not only Prince’s best ballad of the Purple Rain era, but also one of the greatest of his career. Never before had he sung–or screamed–with such sheer, unbridled passion. As drummer Bobby Z recalled in the liner notes for the 2017 expanded edition of Purple Rain, Prince’s climactic scream–“the pleading, the complete shred of his voice–sent chills up and down our spines the first time we all heard it, and until the end of time, it should do the same for anyone else who listens” (Revolution 18).
Indeed, so intense is Prince’s performance that it has, quite understandably, fueled a decades-long debate over what–or who–might have inspired it. As with any song of this vintage, the safe money is on Vanity: Purple Rain’s prospective leading lady, whose tumultuous offscreen relationship with Prince was coming to an end just as the film was ready to go into production. One can certainly read a lot of Prince’s and Vanity’s Pygmalionesque dynamic into the spoken-word bridge of “The Beautiful Ones”: “Paint a perfect picture / bring 2 life a vision in one’s mind / the beautiful ones / always smash the picture / always[,] everytime.” Even more telling was his performance in Melbourne on February 16, 2016, the day after his former paramour’s passing: after singing the line, “I’m begging down on my knees,” he ended the song by softly repeating her real name, “Denise.”
Yet, for years, popular mythology has held that “The Beautiful Ones” was inspired by another woman: guitarist Wendy Melvoin’s twin sister, Susannah. This interpretation isn’t without factual basis. Prince and Susannah met in December of 1982, and began spending time together at the house she shared with Wendy and her partner, keyboardist Lisa Coleman, whenever he was in L.A.: “Wendy and Lisa would pick him up at the airport, and then they’d all just come home and hang out,” Susannah recalled. “He would sleep on the living room couch; we had some cats that bothered him in the middle of the night” (Light 2014 60-61).
According to Alan Light, it was in August of 1983, when Susannah visited Minneapolis to watch her sister’s debut at First Avenue, that Prince made his romantic interest in her apparent. “We were all in love with each other anyway,” Coleman explained, “and then Prince met Wendy and he was like, ‘Well, I can’t have her because you have her, and I can’t compete with that.’ Then Susannah showed up and–twins! He thought, ‘She’s like her, only available’” (Light 2014 94-95). Just how “available,” however, is a matter of conjecture. The story goes that Susannah was seeing someone else at the time; so Prince, undeterred, started sending flowers to her, Wendy’s, and Lisa’s home. “It wasn’t a day that went by where there wasn’t a huge thing of flowers” being delivered, Susannah recalled to Tudahl. Eventually, the house “started to look like a funeral home because there was no way to keep up with the amount of flowers… it was just, ‘Where are we going to put all this stuff?’” (Tudahl 2018 175).
Peggy McCreary and Susan Rogers, Prince’s two main recording engineers during this period, both believe that he channeled some of the energy of this courtship into “The Beautiful Ones.” “It was a very turbulent time and kind of a scary song, the way he screams,” McCreary recalled to Uptown magazine. “I think that he was very much in love with her” (Tudahl 2018 175). Rogers, meanwhile, recalled Prince playing “an early version” of the song on his piano in late July and early August, while she was installing his new home studio console. “He was just working it out over and over again,” she told Keith Murphy for VIBE magazine. “It was a powerful theme for him in his playing” (Murphy 2014). Her account, if nothing else, tracks with the timeline of his and Melvoin’s relationship as recounted by Light.
But Prince himself dismissed in no uncertain terms the narrative that Melvoin was his muse–or Vanity, for that matter. In a 2015 interview with writer Miles Marshall Lewis–briefly published on, and then mysteriously pulled from, the website of Ebony magazine–he clarified his inspiration for the song: “If [you] look at it, it’s very obvious. ‘Do you want him or do you want me,’ that was written for that scene in Purple Rain specifically. Where Morris [Day] would be sitting with [Apollonia], and there’d be this back and forth… To then speculate, ‘Well, he wrote that song about me’? Afterwards you go, ‘Who are you? Why do you think that you are part of the script that way?’” (Lewis 2015).
Whether “The Beautiful Ones” was inspired by a real person or simply written to fit a dramatic scenario, it was undoubtedly tailor-made for the screen. Its sequence in Purple Rain opens with a slow push in on the Kid as he sings from behind his electric piano–an echo of the staging from the “Electric Intercourse” performance at First Avenue. Magnoli cuts back and forth between closeups of the Kid on stage and Apollonia in the audience, creating a kind of flirtatious exchange between spectator and performer. We’re reminded that they aren’t, in fact, the only ones in the room when the Kid reaches up from the piano keys to run his lace-gloved fingers through his hair, sending an audible surge of electricity through the crowd.
Finally, at about the song’s halfway point, movie magic enables Prince to do something he couldn’t have done in real life: Without any apparent effect on the keyboard part, he stands up and walks to the front of the stage. Unencumbered by even the pretense of playing an instrument, he’s now performing with his whole body, pointing into the crowd and slowly sinking to his knees on the lines, “If I told u baby / that I was in love with u…” When he delivers his climactic ultimatum, he enhances the already-stirring vocal through gesture: shaking dramatically, baring his chest (see above), and throwing himself to the stage floor. By the time he’s finished, writes Tim Grierson for Rolling Stone, “he’s as spent as if he’d just had an orgasm. How could Apollonia deny him? How could anyone?” (Grierson 2016).
Grierson’s short essay about the “Beautiful Ones” sequence is subtitled “The Moment Prince Became a Movie Star”; and, while he’s quick to note that it has some competition in Prince’s career, he’s also not wrong. Indeed, “The Beautiful Ones” may be the most effective of all Purple Rain’s performance scenes, simply because it so perfectly dramatizes the sense of intimacy Prince cultivated between himself and his audience. When the camera slowly tracks in on Apollonia, the emotions running across her face clearly mirror those of a suitably enraptured fan. Even more skeptical viewers get an audience surrogate of their own in Morris: the quintessential boyfriend who got dragged to the concert, feigning disinterest at the edge of the frame.
“The Beautiful Ones” marked the end of an astonishing 24 consecutive days of recording at Sunset Sound–and, with it, the bulk of Prince’s work on the soundtrack for Purple Rain. “He always regarded albums as having a kernel or a core,” recalled engineer Susan Rogers. “For lesser artists, you might consider two or three songs as the heart of your record, and then everything else is really just filler. But for him, five or six songs could be the seeds, the core of the record and, from how much I heard him rehearse these things, he knew that ‘Beautiful Ones,’ ‘Purple Rain,’ ‘Computer Blue,’ those songs were representative of the record to him” (Light 2014 101).
With the “core” of his next album officially in the can, Prince could now turn his attention back to the small matter of shooting a feature film. But there was trouble on the home front: Not only was his professional and personal relationship with the female lead deteriorating, but there was also dissension in the ranks of the movie’s antagonists. Purple Rain may have finally received the green light, but it still had a long way to go.
Thanks, everyone, for your patience during another protracted absence. I know myself well enough that I expect my output to remain slow for the rest of the year, but I’m aiming to get at least one more of these bad boys out in November, plus another one next month. First up: “The Bird,” and the Time’s own landmark 1983 First Avenue show! See you soon.