At the beginning of 1984, Prince had a lot of proverbial balls in the air: not only his big-screen debut and accompanying album, but also spinoff projects by the Time, Apollonia 6, Jill Jones, and, soon, Sheila E. Most artists would consider this more than enough to juggle; Prince, however, was not most artists. On January 20, the day after completing the Time’s Ice Cream Castle, he was already at work on a new song for yet another protégée, Scots pop-rock belter Sheena Easton.
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).
We’re now exactly one week out from the release of Prince’s shelved 2011 album Welcome 2 America–i.e., just enough time for Sony Legacy to push out one last promotional single to streaming services and, uh, TikTok. As a certified Old, I don’t have much to say about the last bit; but I can certainly share my thoughts about the song itself.
“Hot Summer” is one of a handful of tracks on Welcome 2 America that stretches the definition of “previously unreleased.” Prince premiered the song on Minnesota Public Radio station 89.3 The Current on his 52nd birthday, June 7, 2010, shortly after a heat wave pushed the temperature in Minneapolis to a record-breaking 95 °F on May 24. Initial reactions were, to put it kindly, mixed. Music blog Stereogum compared the song variously to Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” (!) and Hanna-Barbera mascot-suit bubblegum act the Banana Splits (!!), before concluding, “At least the lyrics are positive.” A 35-page thread on prince.org began with tepid praise but swiftly descended into mayhem, with arguments over whether the woman singing the hook was Janelle Monae (it’s Liv Warfield) and much hand-wringing over Prince’s “decline in writing ability.” Perhaps the most trenchant burn came a little less than two years later, when ex-Family frontman Paul Peterson responded to a subliminal swipe from Prince by remixing the track into a parody ad for Midwestern home improvement chain Menards.
With Albert Magnoli on board as director, preparations for Prince’s film debut finally began in earnest. The artist’s new rehearsal space on Highway 7 in St. Louis Park, Minnesota became the epicenter for a “flurry of activity from morning ’til night,” recalled Brenda Bennett of side project Vanity 6 (Bellaire 2015). Along with a stage setup and recording console, “the Warehouse” also included a small wardrobe department for Vaughn Terry and Louis Wells: costume designers, best known for their work with Earth, Wind & Fire, who had joined the Prince camp during the 1999 tour and would be instrumental in crafting his iconic Purple Rain-era look.
Soon, Terry and Wells would be joined by another familiar face: tour manager Alan Leeds, whose capable handling of the inter- and intra-band tensions during the latter months of the 1999 tour led to his being rehired to help coordinate the film’s production. “I got a call from [manager Steve] Fargnoli sometime in July, offering me the gig to come to Minneapolis,” Leeds told journalist Alan Light. “And I said, ‘Well, what’s the gig? Are you going back on the road?’ ‘Not right away. We’re going to make a movie first.’ I go, ‘Okay, you need me to come there because you’re making a movie? First of all, I don’t believe you’re making a movie. Second, why do you need me to make a movie? I don’t make movies.’ He said, ‘We got three bands: we got Prince and his guys that you tour managed, we got Morris [Day] and the Time, we got Vanity 6. They’re all in the movie. Everybody’s taking acting lessons, everybody’s taking dance lessons, and everybody’s rehearsing new music. We need an off-road road manager to coordinate all this stuff.’ ‘Okay, Steven–you’re really making a movie? Get the fuck outta here!’” (Light 2014 82-83).
Leeds wasn’t the only one surprised by the sudden increase in scale. As keyboardist Lisa Coleman recalled, “For the longest time, we would talk about [the film] like, ‘We’re gonna make the best cult movie, it’s gonna be cool, we’re just gonna put it out there and see who responds to it.’ Then Al Magnoli came and actually kind of connected with Prince, and Al was the one who was like, ‘If we’re gonna make a movie, why don’t we make it a hit movie? It seems like we’ve got all the parts here. Let’s not just make some artsy movie, just for fun’” (Light 2014 91).
In aiming for a “hit,” however, Prince faced the inevitable temptation to sand away some of his rougher edges. Guitarist Wendy Melvoin, who had been a fan before she joined Prince’s band, recalled being disappointed by the new material at rehearsal: “The songs weren’t as funky to me,” she told Light. “They were pop songs; they were definitely watered down.” Coleman remembered Prince himself poking fun at his newfound populist tendencies: “He would imitate an old granny, like, ‘You could make Granny dance to this one,’ but then I think he was just like, ‘We’re leaning it too far to the granny; we still need danger’” (Light 2014 77).