Note: This is my third and last post on “Purple Rain”: a song of such monumental importance to Prince’s creative arc that I’ve opted to split my analysis into parts. If you haven’t already, please read Parts 1 and 2 first.
(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).
When Prince announced he was writing an autobiography in 2016, a certain amount of skepticism was natural. This was an artist with a noted distrust of narrative, for whom “intensely private” had become a journalistic cliché, and who had spent the better part of his public life disparaging the concept of “living in the past.” What would a memoir by such a person even look like? Would he pull a Bob Dylan, give us a handful of disconnected, possibly apocryphal vignettes from throughout his career, then never deliver the promised follow-up? Would he spend the whole book lecturing and chastising us for wanting to know more about him than the work he was creating right then? Would he make us read more of that godawful poetry from the 21 Nights book?
Prince’s Los Angeles sojourn in January 1982 concluded with–and was likely scheduled around–the ninth annual American Music Awards, held at the Shrine Auditorium on January 25. He attended as a guest, not a nominee: the “Soul/R&B” category, for which he would have been nominated, was led by old-guard artists like Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson–as well as his rival of two years prior, Rick James.
Since the conclusion of the Fire It Up tour in May 1980, Prince’s and James’ career fortunes had diverged in unpredictable ways. Prince, as we’ve seen, had become a critics’ darling, trading the commercial success of his second album for the underground credibility of Dirty Mind and Controversy. James, meanwhile, had faltered with the flaccid Garden of Love–the album he’d allegedly recorded with a synthesizer stolen from Prince–but bounced back with the following year’s Street Songs: a masterpiece that finally made good on his “punk-funk” credo while leapfrogging his one-time usurper on the charts. Prince may have won 1980’s “Battle of the Funk,” but at the AMAs it was beginning to look like he’d lost the war, with James nominated for three awards–Favorite Soul/R&B Male Artist, Favorite Soul/R&B Album (which he won), and Favorite Soul/R&B Single for “Give It To Me Baby”–plus a proxy Female Artist nomination for his protégée, Teena Marie.
It’s thus intriguing that only a few days before the awards, on January 21, Prince recorded a song that both satirized and propped up his critics’ darling status, while also lightly mocking the cultural rivalry between L.A.–home of Sunset Sound, Warner Bros., and the AMAs–and its older, snootier cousin to the East, New York City. The song, one of the highlights of his fifth album 1999, was called “All the Critics Love U in New York.”
One more bit of housekeeping before I get back to proper posts–here’s my latest appearance on Darren Husted’s Prince: Track by Track podcast, where I got to talk about what has, in what feels like an escalating series of bets with myself, somehow become my favorite song on Planet Earth:
Also, given the obvious overlap between fans of Prince and Chaka Khan, I thought there might be some interest in my review of her very good latest album for Slant magazine:
This is actually my last Slant review for a while, as I’m trying to focus my extracurricular writing time on this blog. And on that note, the next time you hear from me, it’ll be with a new post on “All the Critics Love U in New York.”