Twenty-five years ago, Prince knew he was a genius. The rest of the world, however, needed a little convincing. How to change this? Teach your band and friends how to act, hire a rookie director who can “tell my life story in 10 minutes”, and convince Hollywood to bankroll a musical.
The result? Purple Rain. A film that grossed $70 million, an album that sold 20 million copies, and the greatest triumph of one of rock’s true superstars. This is the inside story… Words: David Cavanagh. Originally published in Uncut’s December 2009 issue (Take 151). Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns.
In April 1983, when he came off the road after the five-month ‘Triple Threat Tour’, Prince was 24 and in complete control of his fiefdom. “Little Red Corvette” was accelerating up the US charts, and 1999, his extravagant double album, had outsold its predecessor by over a million. This super-skilled multi-instrumentalist wasn’t slow in proclaiming his genius: “Produced, Arranged, Composed and Performed by Prince,” boasted 1999’s cover.
But Prince still had a mountain to climb. While the video for “Little Red Corvette” had been one of the first by a black performer to receive widespread exposure on MTV, for Prince and his managers, a Michael Jackson-style crossover to white pop and rock fans was a matter of gradual progress, not overnight miracles. The ‘Triple Threat Tour’ had not ventured to Europe, Australia or Japan. Huge numbers of people around the world (and in America, for that matter) had yet to hear Prince’s music. And despite his talent, he was a complicated ‘sell’ to rock audiences. A diminutive, pouting dandy, he made music that was heavy on electro-funk synths, drum machines and X-rated lyrics. “We can jump in the sack and I’ll jack you off” was hardly ZZ Top.
For some five years, Prince’s management team, Cavallo-Ruffalo-Fargnoli, had worked hard to take him from 100,000 sales (his 1978 debut, For You) into the double-platinum echelon (1999). With their deal about to expire, Cavallo-Ruffalo-Fargnoli assumed that Prince’s signature on a new contract would be a formality. Until, that is, Bob Cavallo got a call in early 1983 from his associate Steve Fargnoli.
Cavallo remembers: “Steve says, ‘You’re not gonna believe this. He says he’ll re-sign with us if we get him a motion picture.’ And this is Prince’s quote. ‘I want it from a major studio. I don’t want it from some drug dealer or diamond jeweller that you find. And I want my name above the title.’ I was shocked. I thought, Holy Christ, how am I gonna handle this?”
“It was preposterous,” laughs Alan Leeds, Prince’s tour manager. “A movie starring an artist with only two hit singles? How was he going to carry it to the mainstream? Where would he even find the backing from a studio?”