Production on Purple Rain officially wrapped in late December 1983; but as the film’s chief composer as well as its star, Prince remained on call through the post-production phase. Just about a month after the end of shooting, his services were once again required: Director Albert Magnoli wanted a song for the sequence where the Kid and Apollonia ride through rural Henderson, Minnesota on his motorcycle. So, at Sunset Sound on January 22, 1984, Prince started work on “Take Me with U.”
While shooting Purple Rain in the last two months of 1983, Prince had uncharacteristically little time to spend in the studio. But as production wound down in late December, he dove back in, returning to Sunset Sound to work on new material for his manifold projects. On December 27, he recorded the basic track for “The Glamorous Life”–originally intended for Apollonia 6, but later given to (and made famous by) Sheila E. The following day, he added vocals and cut another track that would end up on Sheila’s album, “Next Time Wipe the Lipstick Off Your Collar”; as well as a song yet to be released anywhere, “Blue Love.” The day after that, he completed his first version of “She’s Always in My Hair.” Finally, on December 31, he rang in the New Year with an enigmatic new number, listed on the studio work order as “The Dawn.”
As readers of Duane Tudahl’s Prince and the Purple Rain Era Studio Sessions are no doubt aware, though, the last song Prince recorded in 1983 was not “The Dawn.” It was, in fact, “We Can Fuck,” a title deemed too explicit for an official Sunset Sound document; it would also be known by the euphemisms “Moral Majority” (not to be confused with the actual recording by that title) and, anecdotally, “Sex” (also not to be confused with the 1989 song later released as the B-side for “Scandalous”). But Prince clearly thought the dummy title was too good to waste on an act of self-censorship; because just a week later, on January 7-8, 1984, he recorded a new song bearing the same name.
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).
Director Albert Magnoli liked to call Purple Rain an “emotional biography” of Prince: An impressionistic mélange of the star’s pet themes, anxieties, and obsessions, true to its subject in spirit if not in every detail. And of all the themes, anxieties, and obsessions Prince brought to the film, none loomed larger than his father, John L. Nelson.
John Lewis Nelson was born on June 29, 1916 in Cotton Valley, Webster Parish, Louisiana, the youngest child of farmers Clarence Allen and Carrie Nelson (née Jenkins). Not long after his birth, John’s parents divorced; the reason, according to biographers Alex Hahn and Laura Tiebert, was because Clarence had become involved with another woman (Hahn 2017 50). By the 1920 census, writes historian Kristen Zschomler, Carrie was remarried to a man named Charles Ikner and living in Webster Parish with three-year-old John and his siblings: James (born 1915), Ruby (born 1908), Olivia (born 1904), and Gertrude (born 1903) (Zschomler 9). By 1930, she was widowed, and had traveled north with Gertrude, Ruby, and their husbands and children to a rented home in Southside Minneapolis, near where Olivia had settled with her husband, Edward Mason Lewis. The now-teenaged John likely followed between 1930 and 1935 (10).
From its original treatment, the story of Purple Rain had always revolved around three characters: Prince (a.k.a. “the Kid”), Morris, and Vanity (later replaced by Apollonia). Yet, in the early stages of production, Prince and director Albert Magnoli envisioned a broader depiction of the Minneapolis music scene, with subplots for the various supporting players. There was even talk of the accompanying album including tracks from associated artists, along the lines of the later Graffiti Bridge soundtrack. In the end, of course, this ensemble version of Purple Rain was not to be; the final album and film are both unambiguously Prince’s show. But Magnoli’s draft screenplay made plenty of time for one supporting player in particular: “Jill,” the First Avenue waitress played by Prince’s real-life backing singer and paramour, Jill Jones.