July 27th marks the 30th anniversary of Prince’s Academy Award-winning rock musical Purple Rain. Celebrate with this exclusive excerpt from Chapter 5 of Alan Light’s upcoming Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain, out December 2014. Pre-order the book here.
“The shooting was mostly frantic,” recalls Prince tour manager Alan Leeds. “Prince was unaccustomed to not being in complete control of things, and he was in a situation where he didn’t have the knowledge or the skill set to assume control over certain aspects of it, and you could see that frustrating him to no end. He had absolutely no patience for the time it took to set up lighting, to set up shots, even though he had done music videos — that process was simple enough and flexible enough that his impatience might sometimes compromise a shot and everybody would go along with it. Now you’re making a movie, where continuity is an issue, and you’re not as flexible. And that drove him crazy.
“You also had drama with [Purple Rain director Albert] Magnoli, who didn’t have the complete faith of the crew, because he was not an experienced director; he didn’t have a lot of credentials. There were some people on the crew who were — for lack of a better way of putting it — journeymen, people who had been on a lot of film projects and knew their craft and realized that he didn’t have the experience to know everything, that he was questioning himself a little too publicly sometimes. All you need is one underling who’s frustrated, who thinks he should be a director, and all of a sudden he’s stirring shit up.”
Magnoli’s authority presumably wasn’t helped by Prince’s ongoing script revision. “He took everything away from Magnoli, he was writing the script himself,” says vocalist Susannah Melvoin. “He would be like, ‘Nah, that’s not what I had in mind. There are no rules here — this is my movie, so I can do it myself.’ He would read something and say, ‘It’s not popping enough, it doesn’t say what I’m saying,’ and next thing he’s sitting on the floor rewriting it. He’d give it to Steve [Fargnoli, Prince manager] to take to the office, and the next day it’s changed. It was always his way or the highway and you just facilitated it.”
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The biggest adjustment for everyone was marrying the cultures of music and film. Despite the recent rise of MTV, these communities were still wired for very different schedules and professional methods. “I was constantly pushing the difference between the music world and the film world,” says Magnoli. “Things as simple as, we don’t work past 7 at night. I would tell Prince that he had to convert his whole team to that idea, transition their lives from night to day. And I saw the call to arms — they were excited, and they understood we were on film time. There were never any complaints, everyone showed up knowing their lines.”
“I was always of the opinion that we never had any respect from the film people,” says Leeds, whose job put him right at the flash point where the two sides connected. “That they felt we were just a bunch of lucky people — and by that I mean crew, I don’t mean the artists; I don’t mean Prince. They resented him because, basically, they didn’t believe in the movie. These were hard-nosed ADs and camera ops and it was just another gig, in the middle of a horrible winter. They’re stuck in a Holiday Inn in bumfuck Minnesota, shooting some kid they haven’t heard of, taking orders from a director who’s never done anything, from a lighting director, Roy Bennett — who deserves 90% of the credit for why the performance scenes are so good — who wasn’t a film guy, he was a rock and roll guy.
“The wranglers all had to go to me, because Prince laid the rules that nobody talks to his people but me. So the ADs and so on couldn’t talk to Morris [Day] or Apollonia — they all had to come through me, which also gave me an inflated sense of importance, which was bullshit. Of course it created animosity between me and the ADs, because they resented me being in the middle. Even though I’m trying to be a team player, they don’t see it that way; they see me as interference. So there was all this undercurrent going on that a handful of us tried our best to keep away from Prince and from [manager Bob] Cavallo and Fargnoli, because they had their hands full trying to find the money to keep us going, Prince had his hands full just being Prince, and we just felt that it was our job to try to keep all this off their plate.”
Whatever else was happening, there was obviously one primary question remaining at the center of all the activity: Was Prince going to be able to act? Even if much of the script was written around him standing still and looking cool, Purple Rain was going to live or die on his performance. “In my mind I was thinking, ‘Wow, what are these serious scenes going to be like with Prince acting?’ Because I knew that he had never really had serious acting experience,” says keyboardist Matt Fink. “He always came off to the media as being mysterious and quiet and shy, but with us in the band, we all yukked it up pretty hard, he was gregarious in that sense. But I was concerned — I know that a few times I said to Bobby, ‘Do you really think he’s got some acting ability here? Is he gonna pull it off?'”
Everyone involved in the production uses the same words to describe Prince during the filming process: focused, driven, absorbed, confident. “It felt as inexorable as the progress of a train,” says engineer Susan Rogers. “It just felt steady; a slow, steady progress. There was never any doubt in those sessions, not on the movie set, not in the recording studio, not when we were doing the album or when we were doing the incidental music, not when we were doing post-production. He would’ve been a great general in the army; he has this extraordinary self-confidence, coupled with extraordinary self-discipline and tempered by a really clear self-critical eye. I think he knew himself and what he was capable of. And I think making that movie, on some level, he knew he was dealing his trump cards; … and this was this window of opportunity where he could reveal this enigma, and that maybe that window wouldn’t come around again — which, indeed, I don’t think it ever did.”
In addition to acting and continuing to tweak the script, Prince was (as always) constantly writing and recording music—throughout the fall, he was running sessions with the Time, Jill Jones, and Sheena Easton, among others. “He was the Nutty Professor,” says Susannah Melvoin. “He would call you at 4 a.m. and say ‘I’m cutting hits, what are you doing?’ ‘I’m sleeping.’ ‘Wrong answer’ — and he’d hang up. You knew to get to the studio. It sounds a little cult-ish, but you did it. And, of course, I loved the music. Nobody was doing anything like that, and it moved us to believe in it. We got to do great things.”
Prince took the same approach to watching the film’s dailies that he did to studying video of his concerts every night on tour. “Every time Prince saw himself on screen, anything he saw that he felt was less than he wanted, he would never do it again,” says editor Ken Robinson. “There was never anything that repeated itself as an issue. He would look at it, see it, and correct it for the next time. He learned as he went along, and you could see his performance improving by leaps and bounds, which is very unusual.”
He was also spending as much time as possible at Magnoli’s side, trying to soak up as much information about directing as he could. “He stood behind Magnoli all the time to learn,” says Jill Jones. “He was always curious, wanted to know what was going on with the lights, he loved the DP. I think he looked up to Apollonia a lot because she had more experience than him on that front, and I don’t think he tried to boss his way into things that he wasn’t familiar with, because he’s the kind of guy who only talks about the things he knows about.”
For the part of The Kid’s father, the team cast the most experienced actor on the set. Clarence Williams III was best known as supercool Linc on the youth-oriented cop show The Mod Squad, which ran from 1968 to 1973. Since then he had gone on to work steadily on stage and in film. Though it didn’t assume the bulk of the screen time, the relationship between father and son really was the emotional core of Purple Rain, and it was a smart call to place someone in this role who would help elevate Prince’s game.
“The minute Clarence Williams came onto the set,” says Magnoli, “it created a kind of professionalism that the non-actors, the musicians, hadn’t seen before. Immediately, people were on set to watch Clarence work.”
“When Prince saw Clarence Williams’s work, he was just gobsmacked completely,” says Jones. “He said, ‘He’s amazing. He’s so powerful.’ He was just excited. And when he would see those performances, I think it made him think how great this project was going, it only affirmed his dream.”
The scene in which The Kid walks in on his father playing the piano — a melody actually written by John L. Nelson, which would be incorporated into the middle section of “Computer Blue” — and father tells son to never get married is often singled out as a dramatic highlight in the film. Magnoli says that the exchange came directly from Prince’s own life, a conversation he had with his dad that had always stayed with him.
Probably the most challenging work for Prince the actor was the scene in which he returned to the house as his father shot himself, and then reacting after the ambulance takes his parents away — trashing the basement, seeing visions of his own death, and finally realizing that the papers he is ripping apart are a lifetime’s worth of his father’s musical compositions (this after his father said that he didn’t need to write his own music down and “that’s the big difference between you and me”).
“When he did the scene where he tears up the basement at home,” says Rogers, “I had to come to the movie set to deliver some tapes. Just as I stepped in the door, the red light came on because they were going to shoot that scene, so I ducked in behind the façade so I’d be out of sight. He shot that scene and as soon as it was done, he came around the corner and I was standing right there; I didn’t realize that this partition that I had ducked behind was actually the back wall of that basement. He came around and looked at me, and I saw his face and I was smart enough to not say a word, just share that look with him. I would guess that what Prince was experiencing was a greater vulnerability than what he ever had to show on a music album. As a person who is by nature private, this may have been a moment of real cognitive dissonance, which can be revealing. Maybe what I saw and understood was how odd it is to turn a life into art, how a true artist is compelled to do so.”
“For the big scene where he destroys his room, Prince really did show up emotionally to that moment,” says Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin. “I think it freaked him out to witness Clarence and this other character fighting the way they did, screaming, and him having to not be the big rock star, who would just avoid those situations at all costs. But as an actor, you make yourself vulnerable, and I think it really flipped him out, because that guy would never have shed or shown a tear, and the way that moment is shot for him is beautiful; it’s a really great, true, vulnerable moment for him.”
Magnoli claims that the only time he saw Prince get rattled during the entire shoot was the shot where he sees a shadow of himself hanging from the basement rafter. “That was just freaky to him, he took that to heart,” he says. “It was a turgid, charged moment for that basement scene—very concentrated, a lot of violence and soul-searching, all really intense.” There was actually an additional monologue for the Kid’s mother (Olga Karlatos) during this section of the movie, but it wasn’t used; the emotion they were seeking had already been found.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there were the sex scenes. Touré writes that “there’s a pornish aesthetic to the entire film. It’s like a porno set in the world of a nightclub…Few films give us two Black men of such outsized sexuality and vanity, always looking like they’re about to get someone in bed.” And it’s true that sex infuses Purple Rain throughout — from Apollonia’s outfits to Morris Day’s leer, the suggestion of sex, the mood, is more memorable than the few examples of more explicit action.
The coy dialogue and gauzy camerawork in the scene of The Kid and Apollonia making love in his basement bedroom is more cringe-inducing than genuinely erotic, though to teens in 1984, it certainly offered the requisite titillation. The scene was shot three different ways, for three possible MPAA ratings; they went with the most daring, the “R-rated version.”
“Some of the kissing scenes were like, ‘That’s not real.’ You don’t kiss people like this — it’s ridiculous,” says Melvoin. “You could tell there was so much show biz to the kissing sequence and the lovemaking sequence, it was like Harlequin romances or Red Shoe Diaries.”
(To be completely fair to Apollonia Kotero, for a sense of how last-minute her casting was, look closely at the scene in which Jerome Benton and Morris Day are walking around the block, discussing the problems with the girls’ group: When Day mentions, “That Apollonia babe we saw last night,” it’s clear that his lips are actually mouthing “Vanity” instead of “Apollonia,” and that they had to dub the new name in after Vanity pulled out of the movie.)
If you ask someone to name a scene in Purple Rain other than the musical numbers, chances are good that they’ll say, “the Lake Minnetonka scene.” The Kid drives Apollonia out to the countryside on his motorcycle, stopping by the side of a lake. She asks if he’s going to help her with her career, and he says no, because she hasn’t passed the initiation. The first step, he says, is to “purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.” As a demonstration of her bravery and spunk, Apollonia strips down to her panties and leaps into the water — only to have him tell her, after she wades back to the shore, “that ain’t Lake Minnetonka,” and pull away on his bike while she stands there dripping and near-naked. When he swings back around to pick her up, she giggles and rewards his prank with a peck on the cheek.
“It started to snow that night,” Kotero later recalled, “so when we did the scene, we had Al Jones, our stunt man, wearing a scuba suit. It was a sheet of ice that I ran into. One of our crew guys, an old man, said, ‘I’m going to bring you some Courvoisier tomorrow!’ I had a little bit to drink and it gave me a little warmth.”
Trouper that she was, they shot her plunge into the water three times. But when it came time to shoot the dialogue that came after Kotero got out of the water, it had gotten even colder and the decision was made not to have her undress in the Minnesota wild a second time. The rest of the scene was shot, mostly in close-up, by the side of a lake in Los Angeles, and what we see in the movie is a cross-cut, with Prince speaking in Minnesota and Kotero answering from LA, complete with some inconsistencies in her make-up and hair, which goes from dry to wet and back in various shots.
Excerpt from “LET’S GO CRAZY: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain” by Alan Light, Copyright @ 2014 by Alan Light, to be published by Atria Books December 2014, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Reprinted with permission of author. All rights reserved.