I go way back with Prince. As far as I can recall, my first encounter was hearing “I Wanna Be Your Lover” on the radio. But I didn’t go full-on Prince fanatic until “1999” was released. I count it among one of my great triumphs of youth that my best pre-teen friends and I were able to convince our parents to let us go see his concert on his “1999” tour as long as my big sister was willing to take us. (Don’t judge them; they had faith in our maturity and were tired of hearing us whine and beg!) It was a great – and provocative – show that included The Time and Vanity 6 as opening acts.
When “Purple Rain” was released, I was completely obsessed with the man and his music. So I was thrilled to know his music would get the widespread attention and recognition it deserved. I knew from the moment I saw the trailer it was going to be a phenomenon (see comments below). Over the subsequent years, I went back to hear what I’d missed on Prince’s first four albums (which I was too young to listen to when they were originally released). And by college, I considered myself a Prince aficionado – tracking down whatever unreleased tracks I could find (“Old Friends 4 Sale” remains my favorite among them) and relishing every opportunity to lord my knowledge of his body of work over others.
One of my favorite things about Prince songs is that for many of them there is an extended version (12” LP) that is so incredibly more awesome than the original release. And that’s saying something because the original release is always pretty tight on its own. By the time “Purple Rain” was released in 1984, I knew to look forward to the B-sides as well (I won’t bother to explain B-sides for the youngsters – the little dears). And the singles from “Purple Rain” had some great ones: “17 Days” (opposite “When Doves Cry”), “God” (opposite “Purple Rain”), “Another Lonely Christmas” (opposite “I Would Die 4 U”), and, of course, the ever-funktabulous “Erotic City” (opposite “Let’s Go Crazy”).
I grew up to this music and could talk all day about it, but I’m writing about the movie – which was electrifying because of the music, particularly Prince and the Revolution’s phenomenal stage performances. Prince stars as the Kid, a rising musician at the Minneapolis club First Avenue. His love interest – Apollonia (should’ve been Vanity). His rivals – the much too cool for school Morris Day and The Time. His cross to bear – his dad’s failed music career and his parents’ abusive relationship (His dad was played by the wonderful Clarence Williams III.). It wasn’t an acting tour de force, but it didn’t have to be. It was all about the music, so the only performances I’m elaborating on here are Prince’s musical performances.
“Let’s Go Crazy”
“Electric word, life. It means forever and that’s a mighty long time.”
I will always remember my reaction to the trailer for “Purple Rain.” You just know when something is so earth-shattering it has to take off, and from his voice over the opening chords of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the crescendo into that unforgettable synthesizer riff, I was hooked along with the rest of the world. The images of him on the stage, on his motorcycle, fighting with his dad, making out with Apollonia – it all worked.
The song was the perfect opener for the movie, showcasing just how talented this “kid” was and why we should care what happened to him. One of my favorite parts is when he plays the piano with his toes, but the ultimate is the guitar riff at the end. Growing up in a house with musicians, I appreciated all types of music, and I was particularly thrilled to see a black man who was a rock star for my generation (which came to be known as Generation X).
“Take Me With U”
“To be around you is so all right. You’re sheer perfection. (Thank you!)”
This was my least favorite song on the soundtrack, and not just because Apollonia couldn’t sing. It was a bit too sweet to me, but still melodically lovely. In the movie, the song got the montage treatment because Apollonia was still an unknown in the story, and the Kid wasn’t about to put her on stage with him. Yet she couldn’t help being charmed by him even as he was dragging his feet on helping her make her singing dreams come true. The montage served the purpose of the requisite falling-in-love-to-music moment in the movie.
“The Beautiful Ones”
“You make me so confused. The beautiful ones you always seem to lose.”
“The Beautiful Ones” put all of Prince’s seductive powers on display, and it was clear that Apollonia was riveted from the first “Baby, baby, baby …” The best part, as is so often the case with Prince’s “biggest” songs, is the breakdown at the end. I wasn’t fully riveted until he screeches leading into the climax, “Baby, baby, baby … listen to me. I may not know where I’m going babe …” I knew from my experience with soul and gospel music that when someone says, “Listen to me,” what comes next is going to move you beyond anything that came before it. When someone with soul gets to the point of telling you to listen, you want to listen. And Prince makes it worthwhile – laying it all out there on the stage until he just collapses. It is beautiful.
“Until I find the righteous one, computer blue.”
The “Computer Blue” performance was touching because the Kid incorporated his father’s music into the song. I also liked the simple theatrics he employed during the performance with his band mates, especially how he leaned into his guitar solo for that part of the song. But it wasn’t just about that poignant part of the song. The whole thing was great – from Wendy and Lisa’s speaking intro to the verses everyone can identify with at one time or another – “Where is my love life?” Haven’t we all sought the righteous one? – to the final scream that lets Apollonia know she has been spotted with Morris.
“I knew a girl named Nikki. I guess you could say she was a sex fiend.”
At this point, the Kid is not so happy with Apollonia as she has turned to Morris to get her career going. He feels betrayed even though she had been honest with him and had no interest in Morris personally. Instead of sharing in her excitement, he turns her away, potentially into Morris’ arms, and pens this dynamic tune to humiliate her. “Darling Nikki” was such a marvelous performance because you could tell he was really having fun with it. And the music worked so perfectly with the lyrics. This is the one that sent the parents of the world into a tizzy, which I suppose is bound to happen if you write a song about a sex fiend. The chords at the end after the verses are done and Apollonia flees the club are truly electric. And hearing those chords echo through the backstage as the Kid heads to his dressing room made it feel like I was there.
“When Doves Cry”
“Dig if you will the picture of you and I engaged in a kiss.”
“When Doves Cry” also received the montage treatment in the film. And like, “Take Me With U,” it was not my favorite track on the album, although I did appreciate it. It was the first single and video from the album, and it clearly reflected the themes at this point in the film – his troubled relationships with his girl, his family, and the club owner. All very illustrative, but I actually preferred the seemingly random musings on the back of the album cover.
“I Would Die 4 U”
“You’re just a sinner I am told. I’ll be your fire when you’re cold. I’ll make you happy when you’re sad. I’ll make you good when you are bad. I’m not a human. I’m a dove. I am conscience. I am love.”
“Baby I’m A Star”
“Everybody says nothing comes too easy. But when you’ve got it, baby, nothing comes too hard.”
With “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby, I’m A Star” everything is all happiness and light again after things blew up with the previous three songs. The former solidifies his newly reconciled bond with Apollonia, while the latter puts the world on notice that his formidable talent is here to stay. The energetic performances exert an infectious feel-good vibe, and I couldn’t help leaving the theater feeling like a star myself.
“Baby, I could never steal you from another. It’s such a shame our friendship had to end.”
What I remember most about the “Purple Rain” performance is how nervous the Kid appeared at the start and when he leaned over and kissed Wendy near the end. Was he no longer going to be a jerk to her and everyone else at times? Of course not. But at least for that moment and with that song, he got it. It’s a beautiful if predictable ballad that still carries a kind of elegant weight. I’ll never fully understand the lyrics, but the best explanation of the spirit of the song is in the wordless “oohing” that he and everyone else repeat at the end.