Awiry mulatto man struts across the screen in a cloud of scarlet smoke. His eyes flash fire behind a black lace mask; his naked chest is polished with sweat. “Hey look me over, tell me do you like what you see,” he moans to a nightclub seething with voracious fans. Stripping off the mask, he makes a catlike leap to a platform where he writhes in mock sexual ecstasy, his slim hips pumping and grinding. Screaming like a wounded animal, he reaches for a guitar and strokes its neck feverishly until a spray of water jets out.
No porn-flick fantasy, this: It is a primal scene from Purple Rain, the surprise summer hit that marks the movie debut of Prince, the bad boy of rock. Prince has long been a cult hero among funk fans. But with the release of Purple Rain, a semiautobiographical film shot for $7 million in just seven weeks, the diminutive (5’4″) prodigy has become the man of the moment in Hollywood. Although some reviewers have complained that his acting is execrable, the film built around his music has been lauded by critics on the enthusiastic fringe like the L.A. Herald Examiner’s Mikal Gilmore, who compared it to Orson Welles’ innovative classic, Citizen Kane. Prince has garnered reams of praise for his cinematic charisma. L.A. Times critic Robert Hilburn feels that the strength of the film is Prince’s “presence,” though the movie itself is not strong. “I don’t think the film would work if you took Prince out and put, say, Rick Springfield in instead.” Even Michael Jackson attended a prerelease screening, and the hype-heavy July 26 premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood drew pop dignitaries and scene makers like Eddie Murphy, Kevin Bacon, Rickie Lee Jones, Stevie Nicks, Quincy Jones and John Cougar Mellencamp. The festivities were captured by a crew from MTV, which broadcast the proceedings live. Said Murphy to the TV audience of millions: “Prince is bad.” And most important in a town where money always has the last word, Purple Rain took in $7.7 million during its first three days, replacing Ghostbusters that weekend as the country’s top-grossing movie.
The ascendancy of Prince, 24, is no accident. With his slightly sinister flash and palpable sensuality, he provides an antidote to the eerie asexuality of Michael Jackson, to whom he is inevitably compared. His music is an eminently danceable blend of soul and punk more reminiscent of the renegade Jimi Hendrix (whose electric performance style and musical virtuosity were precursors of Prince’s own) than of the well-programmed Michael. Although several of Prince’s songs are banned from the radio because of their explicit lyrics, the last three of his six albums have sold more than six million copies combined. The nation’s No. 1 LP since the first week in August, Purple Rain is outselling both the Jack-sons’ Victory and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A.—and its haunting single, When Doves Cry, has soared to the top of the pop charts.
A master of mystique and a study in contrasts, Prince parades about in heavy eyeliner but is fiercely protective of his privacy (he employs a 300-pound bodyguard who sometimes carries his frail charge like a child), hates to have his picture taken and refuses to talk to the press. (Only a few of Purple Rain’s cast and crew were permitted to grant interviews; his intimates are wary of reporters even now.) Despite his decadent image, he is a health food devotee, reads the Bible, shuns liquor and drugs and approaches his work with total devotion. He still lives in his native Minneapolis because, in the words of David Rivkin, his recording engineer, he is “a sane, intelligent guy who doesn’t want to be subjected to the L.A. life-style.” Yet he has been spotted at discos in Hollywood and New York and at the concerts of high-profile colleagues like Springsteen and the Jacksons.
Although Prince strikes some observers as being gay, “he’s not at all,” declares Wendy Melvoin, who plays guitar in his backup band, the Revolution. Indeed, he has a reputation as a rapacious consumer of women, reportedly favoring those in their early 20s. He has been romantically linked with the singer Vanity, who recently signed a contract with Motown and left the band that Prince helped create. Sheila E. (for Escovedo), a singer-percussionist whose Glamorous Life LP sounds suspiciously like a Prince production, is rumored to be a current girlfriend. So is Apollonia Kotero, a buxom California-born Latin-German Jew, who plays Prince’s lover in Purple Rain and who inherited Vanity’s band, now called Apollonia 6. “Prince loves his women,” Apollonia says. “It’s not impossible that someday he’ll be devoted to just one. But right now his music is his wife.”
Like Purple Rain’s protagonist (who is called “the Kid”), Prince is the product of mixed blood and a troubled home. Born Prince Rogers Nelson, he is the son of John Nelson, a half-black musician, and Mattie Nelson (“a mixture of a bunch of things,” as Prince has described her), once a singer with her husband’s group. Named Prince Rogers for his father’s stage name, he was one of seven children and a virtuoso musician early on. Although the father left home when Prince was 7, the piano stayed, and the boy used it to pick out tunes like the themes from Batman and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Prince’s unhappiest years began when he was about 9. Mattie (now a social worker in Minneapolis) remarried, and Prince went to live with John. Nelson threw his son out after an argument, and Prince was taken in by an aunt, who eventually booted him because of his guitar playing. “I was constantly running from family to family,” Prince would say later. “It was nice because I always had a new family. But I didn’t like being shuffled around.”
At 13, he found security of sorts at the home of his best friend, André Cymone. They shared a room at first, but the fastidious Prince couldn’t abide André’s sloppiness. He moved into the basement and decorated it with mirrors and rabbit fur purchased from the $10 weekly allowance that John gave him. Bernadette Anderson, André’s mother, became a surrogate parent for Prince and remembers their visitor as a “considerate, good kid who took his turn mopping floors.” But “he didn’t get too close to people. He never talked about his mother and father. He kept a lot of feelings to himself.”
Instead, he expressed himself through music. Too poor to buy records, he listened to the radio, which for a teenager in Minneapolis (where blacks constitute only 7.6 percent of the population) meant mainstream pop played by groups like Grand Funk Railroad. He began writing songs and, as part of the band he formed with Andre, performed in clubs nearly every night by the time he was in high school.
Offstage, the incipient star was an enigmatic figure who danced down the halls of Minneapolis Central High, moving to a tune only he could hear. His teachers remember him as being well dressed and well behaved. Says Beatrice Hasselmann, his music teacher, “Prince was very quiet, somewhat of a loner.” Adds James Hamilton, the high school band director, “A lot of boys had more talent than Prince. The difference was his determination.”
Precocious sexually as well as musically, Prince was dating by 14, but that reputation didn’t help him with other boys. They taunted him about his size (he had the chutzpah to play basketball). “Kids can be cruel,” observes Mrs. Anderson. “I used to tell Prince that height didn’t matter. But when the boys teased him, he’d fight back. He’d hit and run, but he’d get even.”
In 1976 Owen Husney, a local promoter, heard some of Prince’s songs, liked them and, with his wife, Britt, took the 17-year-old under his wing. After Prince’s graduation that year, Husney got him an apartment, supplied him with instruments and an allowance and persuaded Warner Bros, executives to listen to a demo tape.
“A very introspective, gifted kid,” in the words of Warner Bros. Records president Lenny Waronker, Prince was given a contract and—on the basis of a short tryout session—the right to co-produce his own first album. “His instincts,” Waronker says, “are uncanny. He’s a risk taker. His first two albums [1978’s For You and Prince, released in 1979] firmly established him as a black act. His third LP reflected a drastic change and expanded his base.”
Dirty Mind also brought Prince notoriety. Its explicit lyrics shocked disc jockeys, and its cover—which showed him in a brief black bikini—offended record-store owners. Although pop critics praised the LP, some concert-goers were unprepared for Prince. When he opened for the Rolling Stones at the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1981, he was booed off the stage.
It was in 1982, with the crossover album 1999 (and its three hit singles, including Little Red Corvette), that Prince became a fixture in the Top 40. Struck by the power of Prince’s performance on the 1999 video, Albert Magnoli (a neophyte who directed, edited and helped script Purple Rain) proposed a feature-length film in which the singer would “cut through the crap and reveal his soul.” Prince and his personal managers went for it, and the collaborative effort began. Prince wrote the score and worked with Magnoli and William Blinn on the script; members of the Revolution and of local groups, The Time and Apollonia 6, began taking acting lessons, and the shoot was set for last November.
Most Purple Rain principals claim that the film is only loosely based on Prince’s life. Still, says Russ Thyret, a Warner’s marketing executive who has known the singer for seven years, “making the movie was cathartic. He’s gotten rid of some of his devils.” And Apollonia admits, “Everyone was playing themselves.”
The Prince of Purple Rain is a selfish, tormented singer who sulks, treats his girlfriend like a chattel and refuses to play songs written by the women in his band. The trauma underlying his arrogance is revealed when he comes home to his basement room in his parents’ house. Father (played by Clarence Williams III, Line of TV’s The Mod Squad) proves to be a failed black musician who pummels the Kid’s white mother (Olga Karlatos). Repelled by the brutality, the youngster nevertheless echoes it by smacking his own girlfriend. Salvation comes only when he realizes that family history is repeating itself. He vows to change and signifies the breakthrough with an emotional performance of the ballad Purple Rain.
Prince is proud of his movie success. When the lights went on at a recent L.A. screening, he turned to Thyret, who grinned and said, “It ain’t Gone With the Wind, but it ain’t bad.” Still, Prince is making no move to cement his film stardom by migrating to Hollywood. In Minneapolis he lives in a suburban split-level with a bright purple facade. Inside are four bedrooms, a recording studio where he labors until all hours and a kitchen where he cooks up spicy scrambled eggs. Although the neon-lit, scarf-draped master bedroom is “bizarre,” in the words of manager Steve Fargnoli, Prince’s lakeside home is “the kind of place,” according to Lisa Coleman, the Revolution’s keyboard player, “where you’re not afraid to bring your mom.”
But not Prince’s mom. Members of his family are seldom in evidence there. Instead, the house serves as a salon for his ad hoc family of friends and fellow musicians. “We’re more than a band,” reports guitarist Wendy. “We’re definitely Prince’s family. We’re always hugging and comforting each other.”
“When my wisdom teeth were impacted, he made me have them out,” Lisa reports. “I recuperated at his house, and he was a wonderful nurse.”
When Prince isn’t holding court in his suburban hideaway, he tools about town in his black BMW or on the same purple motorcycle he rides in the movie. At night he often checks in at the First Avenue Club, a converted downtown bus terminal that serves not only as a backdrop in Purple Rain but also as another gathering place for Prince’s clan. It was there that he took Apollonia on the evening of her first interview with him—”to see if I could move,” she remembers.
Prince’s conspicuous successes have allayed his shyness and insecurity. Like Purple Rain’s protagonist, he has undergone a metamorphosis of sorts. “When he was young, things didn’t seem permanent,” says Wendy. “Now he’s gotten something he’s in control of, and it’s going to last.”
Now that the mutable Prince has assumed his final form. Though the slight figure in traditional Hasidic dress and long curls may have looked out of place among the microskirted techno-funk crowd at last month’s Purple Rain preview in Dallas, a sharp eye could have detected the legerdemain: Behind the outlandish persona was Prince Rogers Nelson, watching himself become a star.