All Possibilities: The 'Purple Rain' Story Though revered now, Prince's iconic 1984 film and album succeeded against daunting odds. Music critic and journalist Alan Light provides the details in his new book, Let's Go Crazy.
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All Possibilities: The 'Purple Rain' Story

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All Possibilities: The 'Purple Rain' Story

All Possibilities: The 'Purple Rain' Story

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

A low-budget movie, a first-time director, a cast that's never acted before and a star who's not yet a star - maybe that's a recipe for disaster. But instead, that movie made nearly 10 times its budget, and thirty years on, it's a classic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO CRAZY")

PRINCE: (Singing) Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.

RATH: "Purple Rain" - Prince played The Kid, a ridiculously talented young musician on the verge of stardom - a version of himself. Music critic Alan Light tells the story behind the film in his new book "Let's Go Crazy." The pop world was much more segregated in the early 1980s. And before "Purple Rain," you could pretty much only hear Prince on black radio. But Light says Prince achieved some crossover success with songs like "1999" and "Little Red Corvette."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LITTLE RED CORVETTE")

PRINCE: (Singing) But it was Saturday night. I guess that makes it all right. And you say, what have I got to lose? And honey, I say little red Corvette.

ALAN LIGHT: Not only could they see they were moving to bigger and bigger venues, but also could see more and more white faces in the crowd, you know, week to week as the album was going and especially as "Little Red Corvette" was taking off. But still, it's astonishing when you think back. I think that we look at "Purple Rain" now a little bit and think there was sort of an inevitability about "Purple Rain." You know, Prince was the great genius of his - of his day. And there was going to be some vehicle that was going to come along and translate that to the world.

But if you look at the moment that it happened, when Prince went to his managers and said, you have to get me a feature film deal, or you're fired - and what came out was a movie with a first- time director, first-time producer, Prince as the star who'd never acted, his band as most of the cast. And they said, we're going to shoot in Minneapolis in the winter. Now, which piece of that sounds like it was going to be a big success?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO CRAZY")

PRINCE: (Singing) Oh, no. Let's go. Let's go crazy. Let's get nuts. Let's look for the purple banana till they put us in a truck. Let's go.

RATH: Now, when it comes to the film, how much of "Purple Rain" is really Prince's story? How much is he The Kid?

LIGHT: Well, I think it's always - you know, there's always tension around that. It was obviously so much of the fascination at the time. When the movie came out, we really didn't know much about Prince. Here was this guy. And it's amazing to look back and think Prince did not do one interview during the entire "Purple Rain" cycle.

RATH: He was on Rolling Stone - the cover of Rolling Stone a bunch of times without talking to them.

LIGHT: Sometimes, without ever talking to them. And though a lot of the details in the movie are not accurate to his life, most prominently - he certainly, at the time, was playing with this idea that he had one white parent, one black parent. He never addressed that he had two black parents. He is a black man. That's who he is. But this idea that he could sort of keep any doors open for his identity was really interesting to him. I think there's something about "Purple Rain" that felt real and felt to his experience of being an outsider, of not feeling like his music fit in. There was something about that that, you know - whatever the limitations of the acting in the film - was something resonated with an audience.

RATH: You write - and this is actually something that a number of people have said - this is an album that - every song on this is terrific. Every song is pretty much a classic. Let's talk about the title song, "Purple Rain."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

LIGHT: What's really amazing is that recording of "Purple Rain" that we know - that is 98 percent the first time that they had played that song on stage. Now, if there is anything that shows what kind of discipline and what kind of rehearsal Prince puts his band through, the fact they went out, and the first time they played that song is the version that 30 years later, we still know every second of. That's amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

PRINCE: (Singing) I only want to see you laughing in the purple rain. Purple rain, purple rain...

LIGHT: There's a little bit of editing. There's a verse that they dropped. There's some editing in the guitar solo. They added a little bit of echo. But essentially, it is that exact performance. And that is mind-blowing, like, to understand that they could just go out there in such perfect fighting shape that they could nail it like that.

So what inspired him to write "Purple Rain" was that when they were touring on the 1999 Tour, he was following Bob Seger into a lot of arenas and was very interesting in why was Bob Seger such a big star, especially in the Midwest. And Matt Fink, the keyboard player, remembers that he was talking to Prince and saying, well, it's these big ballads that Bob Seger writes, and that's what people love. And that Prince went out to try to write that kind of arena rock power ballad - that resulted in "Purple Rain."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE RAIN")

PRINCE: It's such a shame our friendship had to end. Purple rain, purple rain, purple rain, purple rain...

RATH: Now, after "Purple Rain" - or you could say it's actually while "Purple Rain" was still on the air, Prince decides to move on, fast. And it's kind of put to him the way you have it in the book that - Prince, you need to pick. You can't be both Elvis Presley and Miles Davis.

LIGHT: It's such a great line. That's Bob Cavallo, who was one of his managers. He's like, I get it, but you can't be Miles Davis and follow your own whims and directions and also be Elvis Presley and the biggest pop-star in the world. And I think "Purple Rain" created a struggle for Prince that he's fought with ever since then. Is this guy the biggest cult artist in the world, who has a million people who will follow him, however experimental he gets? Or is he a guy who fills stadiums and plays the Super Bowl half-time show and is one of the biggest pop music artists in history?

What's remarkable, going back, is he cut off the Purple Rain tour after six months, very abruptly. He sees - he gets to the mountain top and sees to be a pop star means I've got to keeping playing the hits. I've got to give the audience what they want when they want it, and I'm not capable of doing that. So I think right at that moment, he slams the breaks on "Purple Rain." He puts out "Around The World In A Day" and goes in a very different direction. Now, in some ways, that salvages - you know, if he'd gone off and made "Purple Rain 2," then you're just on a - you start a long descent that's hard to get out of. Once you've shown I can go and do other things, then you leave all the - all the doors and the possibilities open.

RATH: That's Alan Light. His new book about Prince in "Purple Rain" is called "Let's Go Crazy." Allen, it's been really fun talking with you. Thank you.

LIGHT: Thank you so much. Pleasure.

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