We can argue whether or not Purple Rain is the pinnacle of Prince’s lengthy career, but in a short period of time when a handful of performers took that step from gold record to legend (Springteen, Madonna, Michael Jackson), Prince seemed destined to fill out that musical Rushmore. In 1984 he simultaneously had the top film, album and single in the nation, and I don’t know if that feat’s been matched. Maybe in the UK with the Spice Girls, but likely not here.
Author Light was one of the few journalists with access to Prince in the 80s and 90s. Though Prince contributed nothing new to this book, Light includes archived sound bytes and new insight from former members of The Revolution, Questlove (who taught a course on Prince’s music at NYU), and others involved in the film’s production. The story of how Purple Rain the film came to be greenlit, and how Prince convinced his entourage of musicians to come into this medium with no acting experience could make for an equally interesting, if not more dramatic, film. When you peel away the aloof exterior (gossip at the time pegged Prince at various points on the egotistic spectrum, from mysterious to cold-as-stone to unprintable) you find a performer determined to work twenty-fours without sleep if it means expanding his reach beyond R&B radio, where record labels seemed content to place him. That he succeeded in negotiating a movie deal in tandem with new music speaks for his determination and savvy, and for the good insight of certain people in the industry.
Light tells the story well in Let’s Go Crazy – it’s not a lengthy book but the cast and crew only had so such time to film. Purple Rain takes much of the focus in this microhistory of the 80s music scene and even clarifies a few misconceptions of Prince’s character (read: the “We Are the World” debacle). I do take off a few points for the instances where Light injects personal bias into the story. Light admits his admiration and fan status, but in a few places the book treads into memoir territory, and that might turn off a few people. Other than that, I liked this book for its nostalgia value (though I feel pangs for reaching an age where I can be nostalgic about anything), and one of these days I’ll get to see the movie on the big screen as intended.