It is hard to find evidence of Prince before he was Prince. If you catch clips of his first TV performances, on a variety show called The Midnight Special and on American Bandstand, he’s got frizzy, hot-rolled hair and stalks around in a bikini and thigh-highs like he’s still getting used to the elevation of his heels. He’s touchingly tongue-tied, so edgy he can’t stand still. His moves echo Jagger’s (he opened for the Stones in 1981); his style is some outgrowth of disco and soft core porn. Here is a fledgling rock star.
The only competition for Prince’s musical brilliance can be found in the mononymic myth he created around himself. His vulnerability—the sensitivity in his face, the paradoxical feelings described in his music—was belied by his mastery of his tight band, his body, his relentless schedule, his entranced public, his artistic forms. Anecdotal evidence paints Prince with commonplace enthusiasms—basketball, breakfast food, the comedy of Zooey Deschanel—but these pleasures proved idiosyncratic. Even in ordinariness, Prince’s compass oriented according to superhuman talent and discipline and a gnomic set of beliefs. He is (was, remains) a riddle made of symbols.
As with many singers, his stardom was amplified by a hit film and warmed a public that might have resisted the g-strings and dirty-minded lyrics of his early shows. Still, Purple Rain was not a pre-ordained success. Onscreen, there’s a perceptible divide between performer and actor—an entertainer breaks the fourth wall to reach an audience, an actor pretends it doesn’t exist. To breech the challenge, Prince allowed Purple Rain to take the shape of autobiography with an attendant psychology that he later rejected. Like the singer, who had been named after his father’s jazz trio, the film’s protagonist is molded according to his musician parents’ gifts and faults. The Kid is all self-thwarting talent and inchoate passion, risking success and personal connection for artistic autonomy. The Kid is a mystery to everyone, possibly even to himself.
The story arrives in Minneapolis with Apollonia, a scrappy young woman with pop star aspirations. She discovers a city that thrives on musical rivalries—a potent opportunity for any ambitious talent. Two bands battle for headliner status: The Revolution led by The Kid, a mercurial and tormented polymath; and The Time, a zoot-suited troupe of crowd-pleasers fronted by Morris Day. The manager of the venue First Avenue has a glut of good acts, and he’s alienated by the Kid’s dysfunctional themes and kinky performances. “No one digs your music,” he warns. A subjective judgment, of course, and an empirical fallacy—anything Prince performs onstage is riveting. But the challenge provides a natural arc for The Kid’s story: will the young performer get past his foibles to attain glory or will he falter and be forgotten?
In romance, The Kid is the king of the persuasive neg. He compels Apollonia to strip down and purify herself in a freezing lake, then chides her about getting his motorcycle seat wet. She pawns her jewelry to buy him a guitar, then he slaps her for pursuing her own music with help from Morris Day. Perhaps all this plot is parenthetical. In MTV’s earliest years, Prince understood that the world consumed songs visually (the video for “When Doves Cry” is essentially a three-minute segment culled from the film). At times, Purple Rain feels more like a music delivery system than a movie: its characters are thinly-drawn, its acting wooden, its comedy cartoonish, its episodes held together mostly with the allure of its stage acts. If it nonetheless works (and I’m saying it works wonderfully), it’s thanks to the enigma machine that is Prince. The film’s triumph can be measured in the extent that its narrative overrides the star’s origins and explains his modus operandi.
Let’s posit that Prince was an introvert as well as a control freak, that the single-mindedness and sensitivity compelling him to create songs kept him out of sync with the every day. (When he adds quotidian details to his songs, they feel heightened and surreal: fruit cocktail, starfish, coffee, they’re all estranged when Prince invokes them.) In question and answer, in canned dialogue, he appears in his detriment. Prince’s language is call and response, hook, bridge and chorus. His element is music – making it, performing it, conveying it to audiences, interpreting it with his body, employing it for a higher purpose. Let’s not forget, Prince shaped the roles and songs of all the movie’s musical characters. So in Purple Rain, Prince works as a tuneful poltergeist, synthesizing musical trends, idioms and emotional triggers in order to speak across all media. This ventriloquism proved a pattern beyond Purple Rain – even before Prince changed his name to a symbol, he wrote under pseudonyms and for other artists and inspired fellow musicians to write in dialogue with his own songs.
The idea of a self, a singular cohesive subjectivity, is always problematic, especially with regard to this protean performer. David Bowie, whose genius took similarly mutable form, managed to find naturalism in acting, but maybe his unguardedness linked to the lifestyle Bowie searched for and later achieved. Normalcy was the Starman’s final guise. Prince, on the other hand, manages spontaneity amid well-rehearsed choreography. Only in performance does his character become multi-valenced: a hyper-energetic, hyper-sexual showman, an arrogant and unparalleled soloist, a talent raised up and kept apart by his genius.
When asked in interviews what he wanted the public to know about him, Prince answered simply: “the music.” He seemed allergic to confession. He replied to interviewers in a pleasing murmur, sometimes humorously, always uneasily when a host like Arsenio Hall tried to introduce private Prince to his public. His replies to Oprah were coquettish. “[Am I] weird? Well maybe strange for other people,” he allowed, batting his lashes, fawn-like and beautiful. Prince gave himself tirelessly and intimately but publicly only through music and only on his terms. His themes were spiritual and carnal—not an opposed binary but an ouroboros, each feeding the other—but even that lyrical frankness doesn’t mean he wanted to be known.
In Purple Rain, the filmmakers have The Kid hamlet his dilemmas—exposing inner conflict through a puppet he manipulates and addresses. More than anything the device foreruns the final scenes of The Double Life of Veronique, when a god-like, omniscient storyteller, also a puppeteer, seduces the heroine as research for a drama he is writing. He wonders if it’s possible to possess a woman only through elliptical and mysterious signals; that is, through the compulsion of her mind. The resulting romance is not necessarily driven by the desire to create intimacy but by the urge to elaborate a private preoccupation. And here we recognize Prince, who was worshipped for creating so extensively but who seemed to work only in dialogue with himself, or with another form of divinity. The film reaches its pinnacle with its title song, a rock ballad that uses the language of spiritual redemption as a form of personal apology. You can posit many meanings from the lyrical personae, but the words and the guitar line are moving and transcendent. When Prince performed live, the eight minute hit could stretch to twelve or fifteen minutes – it’s a song no one wanted to leave.
It is matter of course that Prince’s death is so stunning; beyond his avowed, rigorously clean living and unequaled energy, he was the master of the seductive tease. A syntax of looks, grooves, moves, glyphs, iterative identically-stunning proteges, and, most notably, absences and surprise appearances, stood for Prince. Prince doesn’t go silent forever—only as long as his disinterest persists. His eclipse from Earth feels like a cliff-hanger in a serial that is meant to continue. In one of Prince’s last interviews he explained the reason for his deadbolted storage space that housed a career-spanning catalogue of unreleased tracks, enough material to release an album a year for the next hundred years. At times he had vowed to burn its contents. More recently, he decided the vault was for when “I don’t want to speak in real time.”
According to Zadie Smith, the German philosopher Schopenhauer describes “the gift of genius [as] nothing but…the ability…to discard entirely our own personality for a time, in order to remain pure knowing subject, the clear eye of the world.” In his art, Prince was America’s answer to Schopenhauer – he was a lightning rod, an earworm, an internal monologue from outside. Almost no one could relate to Prince as a peer—perhaps, in fact, Prince savored the grade of peerlessness—but maybe he feels so singularly intimate because of his own occulted identity. We can console ourselves that his idea of an afterlife allowed for a transpersonal self: “Life spans are getting longer,” he told a Rolling Stone reporter. “[P]eople are learning more about everything, so then the brain makes more connections. Eventually, we’ll be in eternal brain mode because we’ll be able to hold eternity in our minds.” He is the real life analog to Luc Besson’s sci-fi heroine, Lucy: against his will and by design, Prince uploaded himself through his work to the ether. Lucky for us, he’s left behind a good deal — still unknowable, he’s everywhere.