Principal photography for Purple Rain was scheduled to begin on November 1, 1983, but it actually got started a day early: To take advantage of the beautiful fall weather in Minneapolis, Prince’s manager-turned-producer Bob Cavallo rented a helicopter for aerial shots of the star and his leading lady riding his soon-to-be-iconic 1981 Honda CM400A Hondamatic. “We spent the day shooting the shit out of the motorcycle,” director Albert Magnoli recalled (Light 2014 113). Everything was going so smoothly, in fact, that one could hardly tell the original lead actress had left the production in the lurch.
As we’ve seen, relations between Prince and Vanity had been in choppy waters since at least the 1999 tour. By the time Magnoli met the aspiring actress in early August, “It was obvious there was a strain, that her agent was putting doubt in her,” the director observed. “She’s looking at the next door, but she’s not sure she wants to go through” (Light 2014 106). Vanity remained attached to the project for at least the rest of the month; she’s in Magnoli’s draft screenplay, dated August 29. But sometime in September, the other shoe finally dropped: Martin Scorsese had approached her with an offer to play Mary Magdalene in his adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ. Magnoli was upfront with her: “‘This is my first picture. It’s a musical. Martin Scorsese? Okay, I don’t want to steer you wrong here, but gee whiz, that’s a great opportunity,’” he recounted. Less than two days later, “she was out” (Tudahl 2018 131).
As it turned out, this specific opportunity wasn’t long for the world. By the end of 1983, budget concerns and controversy from religious groups would spook distributor Paramount into cancelling The Last Temptation; Scorsese would have to wait another three years to make the film at Universal, with Barbara Hershey (Hannah and Her Sisters) now in the Magdalene role. But the writing was on the wall for Vanity and Purple Rain regardless. “The movie was Prince’s dream,” she said at the time. “They wouldn’t pay me enough money to go through with the crap I would have to go through… I didn’t want to be stuck in the snow at six in the morning in some camper with no place to change clothes. Who needs that?” (Nilsen 1999 126). In the end, she signed on for a different–if slightly less prestigious–film with “Last” in the title: the Berry Gordy-produced cult martial arts comedy The Last Dragon (Michael Schultz, 1985), for which she reportedly received $300,000–some 60 times the amount Prince was allegedly willing to pay (Tudahl 2018 131).
Vanity’s departure was a blow to the film in more ways than one. “In our world Vanity was famous,” explained Cavallo; a dramatization of her relationship with Prince on the big screen would have been a major enticement for their audience (Tudahl 2018 132). And, while anyone who’s seen The Last Dragon can attest that she wasn’t hired for her acting chops, she had an undeniable charisma that would prove difficult to replace. “Vanity’s presence is so freaking strong, she can make the Red Sea part,” Magnoli recalled. “She was a force of nature” (149). If the production were to stay on schedule, however, the filmmakers would need to simulate that force in a hurry.
Wasting no time, Magnoli and Cavallo posted casting calls in New York and Los Angeles for a “beautiful, voluptuous female, between 18 and 21, under 5-foot-4, sexy with an open, ripe look” (Tudahl 2018 185). Legend has it that as many as 500 women responded; “I don’t know if we saw five hundred,” the director averred to Alan Light, “but we sure saw a bunch” (Light 2014 107). One of the last actresses they auditioned was Patricia “Patty” Kotero: a 24-year-old photo model and former Los Angeles Rams cheerleader whose recent screen credits included episodes of CHiPS and Fantasy Island, as well as the music video for Eddie Money’s 1982 single “Shakin’” (see above). Magnoli was immediately smitten: “she was the direct opposite of Vanity,” he recalled. “And I realized that because they were so opposed to each other, they would work” (Tudahl 2018 185).
Indeed, Magnoli has made much over the years of the contrast between Vanity and her replacement, soon to be rechristened Apollonia. As he put it to Light, “Vanity was danger, overt sexuality, sin; Apollonia was sweetness and light” (Light 2014 108). In reality, though, the two starlets shared some key commonalities. Both had begun their modeling careers by winning beauty contests: in Kotero’s case, her hometown’s Miss San Pedro pageant. Both also had dubious exploitation flicks in their filmographies: Kotero having played the female lead in the 1980 Mexican-Colombian co-production Amor ciego (a.k.a. Sex Beach). If Kotero lacks much of Vanity’s edge–a product, one imagines, of her rather less turbulent upbringing–it’s ultimately of little consequence to the film. As Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder writes, “the two women are obviously interchangeable within the cartoon context of the character[.] Vanity/Apollonia is a walking Penthouse wet dream of billowing breasts and plushly upholstered contours, her sultry face, framed by gleaming cascades of raven hair, a frank invitation to frolic” (Loder 1984).
The trouble was, Kotero wasn’t only replacing Vanity in Purple Rain; she was also the new frontwoman for Vanity 6 (or, as they would soon be known, Apollonia 6). And, while few would accuse Vanity of being a great singer, she had the sheer force of personality to turn a slight confection into a minor masterpiece. Take, for example, “Sex Shooter,” recorded for the scrapped second Vanity 6 album in the spring and summer of 1983. At first blush, it’s a pale rewrite of “Nasty Girl,” with a concept–what if six-shooter, but for sex–that is either nonsensical or shockingly explicit, depending on your interpretation. But Vanity sells it: She could take lyrics as goofy as, “I’m a sex shooter / Shootin’ love in your direction,” and make them compelling.
With the Artist Formerly Known as Patty now on board, Prince had just a few weeks to mold her into the persona he and Vanity had taken months to create. He had his work cut out for him. Engineer Susan Rogers recalled their first recording session at Prince’s Kiowa Trail home studio: “She was warming up, in a quiet little voice, with the Beatles’ ‘When I’m 64,’ and that was the preparation for singing ‘Sex Shooter.’ I realized, ‘Oh boy, this one’s going to be tough,’ because obviously the poor woman was no singer, she was an actress” (Tudahl 2018 186-187).
According to sessionographer Duane Tudahl, Prince spent the rest of the session working one-on-one with his newest protégée, “coaxing her to be more assertive and confident” (Tudahl 2018 187). As was his custom, he also had a guide vocal for her to follow. Prince’s version of “Sex Shooter,” later released on 2019’s Originals compilation, offers a behind-the-scenes glimpse at his process writing for women. He sings in a breathy falsetto, bringing a disarming vulnerability to the otherwise preposterous lyrics, “I need you to get me off / I’m a bomb, baby, ready to explode.” His decision to leave the pronouns untouched in lines like, “Come on boy, let’s make some time,” adds a frisson of queerness for contemporary listeners. Mostly, though, it’s striking just how closely Apollonia followed his lead: As Rogers noted, she’s an actress, not a singer, and here she hits all her marks.
At some point between the Vanity 6 recording and his sessions with Apollonia, Prince also reworked the song’s arrangement, streamlining it to better suit the novice frontwoman’s abilities. Both the Vanity and Apollonia versions are built on the same foundation: a heavily-phased Linn LM-1 beat that sounds like a jet engine about to take off. But the latter strips away the former’s grimy, distorted bass lick, swapping it in for a gleaming Minneapolis Sound synth line. Also absent from the later version is the coda, in which Vanity entreats Brenda and Susan–not to mention the entire population of New York–to “count to eight,” then “clap [their] hands” “as soon as [she] get[s] undressed.” The result is a smoother, more polished track, if also a less funky one.
Apollonia did eventually make “Sex Shooter” her own, after a fashion. Tudahl observes that her performance, more anodyne than Vanity’s, “altered the effect of the track, turning it into a more playful pop song” (Tudahl 2018 193). “She had this campy quality to her voice that was perfect,” Rogers affirmed. “She sounded like an actress pretending to sing” (Nilsen 1999 142). This sense of ironic distance, however accidental, is also evident in her film performance. There’s an odd quality to most of the roles in Purple Rain, filled as they are by amateur actors playing fictionalized versions of themselves; but in Kotero’s case, the uncanniness is multiplied–she’s a semi-professional actor, playing a fictionalized version of Denise Matthews, playing Vanity.
The uncanniness of Apollonia is never more evident than in the scene where she and her group premiere “Sex Shooter.” Unlike the rest of the film’s musical sequences, which were both shot and set at First Avenue, this one takes place at “the Taste”–a movie-set version of the Taste Show Lounge, where Vanity 6 made their actual live debut on October 19, 1982. And, while the performances by the Revolution and the Time at least attempt to emulate the energy of a live show, Apollonia 6 feel like they’re lip-syncing, with no backing musicians onstage and a greater emphasis on choreography. Last but not least, there’s the meta element. In real life, Vanity 6 had been publicized as a side project of the Time and Jamie Starr, not Prince; here, the film’s fiction presents Apollonia 6 the same way, with Morris as the “Jamie Starr” figure, even as Prince’s growing extratextual myth makes it clearer than ever that he’s the one pulling the strings.
Back outside the film’s fiction, “Sex Shooter” was released as a single on August 31, 1984, a little over a month after Purple Rain premiered in theaters. The song was a modest success, peaking at Number 85 on the Hot 100, Number 32 on Hot Dance/Disco, and Number 19 on Hot Black Singles: a kind of inversion of Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl,” which just missed the pop charts, but peaked higher on Dance and R&B at Numbers 1 and 7, respectively. It’s best heard in its 12″ incarnation, which restores one of the tastiest moments from the original Vanity 6 recording, where the singer purrs, “Blow me away,” and Prince responds with a stadium-worthy ascending guitar line.
As for Vanity, while one doubts she ever left Prince’s life entirely, her time as a central figure in this drama had come to an end. Days before shooting began on Purple Rain–and the night before she left Minneapolis for good–she and Prince met for the first time in weeks. “In spite of everything, I’ll miss and love him,” she wrote in her diary on October 25, 1983. “Come to think of it, we never said ‘Goodbye.’ I cried of course” (Tudahl 2018 191). A little over a year later, she’d tell Rock magazine, “There’s a big part of me that doesn’t want to see” the film. “Prince and I were so close… There’s a lot of us in that movie” (370).
She wasn’t wrong. To this day, it’s virtually impossible to bring up Apollonia and Purple Rain without inviting speculation as to what might have been had Vanity remained the female lead. And, while I maintain that Ms. Kotero acquitted herself well under the circumstances–the “Lake Minnetonka” scene alone guarantees her place in ’80s movie history is secure–it’s hard to imagine Prince walking away from this experience without learning a difficult lesson. Recasting a role in a movie is easy enough to do; but replacing a person in your life is something else entirely.
Thanks to J. Greg Morrison and Puddin Taine for joining the Patreon in the last two weeks. I have a few ideas in mind for the next post, but whatever it ends up being, I’ll be back soon!