A combo piece this morning, taking one entry from my up-coming review of January books and combining it with the movie on which it focused.
Let’s Go Crazy – Alan Light
I shared the excerpt from this a few weeks back, and the book finally hit the library two weeks ago. I snatched it up and raced through it in about a day.
It was awesome.
It details the creative process surrounding both the movie and album Purple Rain. Despite being one of my all-time favorite albums, I did not know a ton about its background. So while much of what Light shares is 30-year-old news, it was mostly new to me. And even some of the standard material is presented in a fresh way. Light was, and is, a fan, so the book isn’t terribly critical, although he doesn’t duck from how Prince’s output has been uneven since the late 1980s. And he pokes fun at the movie, which is poorly acted in many parts, has a number of awfully misogynistic moments, and has not aged well at all in several segments.
He is a fan writing for fans. Which, when it comes to this kind of book, is exactly what you want.
There are all kinds of nuggets in the book. My three favorites:
1) Chris Rock, who is a huge fan, comparing Purple Rain to Thriller. (I’m paraphrasing), “Every song on Purple Rain could have been a single. There was no “Baby Be Mine” on it.” Truth.
2) Stevie Nicks wrote her song “Stand Back” based on how she felt after hearing “Little Red Corvette.” She even had Prince in the studio with her and he, apparently, helped her hammer out parts of it. As a token of thanks, he sent the music for “Purple Rain” to her and asked if she would help him write lyrics for it. She said she knew immediately it was destined to be a classic, felt overwhelmed, and sent it back saying she wasn’t worthy of being offered a chance to help write for it.
3) I have no idea how I did not know this, but Vanity was supposed to play the lead female role. But a difference of opinion and a desire to carve out her own career caused her to leave the cast not long before filming was set to begin. Thus Apollonia got cast and Vanity 6 became Apollonia 6. I always figured that was just some cheekiness, calling the bands such similar names.
After reading the book, it seemed appropriate to watch the movie again. I remember watching the edited for TV version on VH1 when M. was a baby. But I have no idea when I last watched the entire, uncut version. Sometime in the early 1990s, if not farther back than that. So last night, instead of watching basketball or finishing up season two of The Americans, I watched Purple Rain.
Light’s analysis of the movie is pretty solid. When there is music being performed on the screen, the flick is astounding. Right music, right moment, etc. It’s tough to argue that the scenes with The Revolution and The Time aren’t the best live music moments in movie history. The opening segment, where the various characters and the setting are introduced over “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Jungle Love” are perfect. The scenes with Mazarati and Apollonia 6 aren’t as powerful or good, but they still fit into the overall vibe the movie offers. And the last 20 or so minutes, when The Time absolutely destroy the First Avenue club with “The Bird” and then The Revolution counter with “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Baby I’m A Star,”…well if you actually saw those four songs performed in a row, live, in 1984, your brain might just have exploded.
Looking at the acting, Prince does ok. Some moments are awkward and forced, but he has a reasonable number of decent scenes. Apollonia seems overmatched by the moment. A number of secondary characters also have a B-movie quality about them. But Morris Day and Wendy Melvoin are the highlights. Day nearly steals the show with his enlightened, comic pimp act. And Melvoin offers a powerful and mature performance for a woman who was 19 and had never acted before. She doesn’t have many lines, but they do serve as a nice counter to the Kid’s ego and selfishness.
Despite the dated feel to the fashion, it is still a visually stunning movie. The multi-ethnic crowd at First Avenue, in their glammed-up, New Wave via Minneapolis clothes and makeup, sum up the moment while still somehow feeling futuristic.
One of the big tragedies of the movie is that The Time did not survive it. I remember their album Ice Cream Castle picking up steam just as Purple Rain was running out of fuel in early 1985. But by that point Morris Day had left the group to launch his solo career and attempt to make his own movies. He never had great solo success, and The Time only had minor hits when they reformed in the early 90s. However, as Light points out, perhaps they were not destined for their own greatness. There are persistent rumors that Prince both wrote and played most of the music on Ice Cream Castles. The Time looked great live in the movie, but could they have kept the momentum from the movie going when Prince was more interested in doing his own thing?
Which leads us to the gigantic take-away from reading the book and watching the movie: has anyone had a stretch as good as Prince had from 1982–1986? In that span he recorded three albums, made a massive movie, had one of the highest grossing tours of all-time, wrote and/or produced songs for The Time, The Bangles, Chaka Khan, Sheila E., Vanity 6, Apollonia 6, Sheena Easton, and Stevie Nicks. His Minneapolis sound, when tweaked by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, became the dominant pop music sound into the early 90s. And while his multi-ethnic/no-ethnic worldview seemed utopian at the time, it foreshadowed an age two decades in the future when racial lines became tenuous as more-and-more Americans could check multiple boxes for ethnicity on a census form.
The Beatles in 1963 likely had a bigger overall cultural impact. But I don’t know that anyone has ever done what Prince did during that run.
Purple Rain the album remains a masterpiece 31 years after its release. “Purple Rain” the song is as epic today as it was in the climactic scene of the movie and as the closing track on the album. Purple Rain the movie? A little corny, cringe-inducing at times, and far from a great film. But it remains a visually arresting, aurally mind-blowing document of pop music’s biggest year and an artist at his absolute prime.