Book Review: Let’s Go Crazy – Prince and the Making of Purple Rain

Let’s Go Crazy
Prince and the Making of Purple Rain
By Alan Light
Published by Atria Books

The success of the movie Purple Rain parlayed Prince from being a 1980s niche R&B black rocker with regional appeal to overnight heavy rotation on a predominantly white MTV. This cultural shift was a long way from his getting booed off the stage while opening for The Rolling Stones in 1981.

Let’s Go Crazy, written by Alan Light and published by Atria Books, uses the fame generated from Purple Rain to explain how culturally deprived and segregated radio was in the 1980s. With the exception of Michael Jackson (a target that Prince used to stay artistically motivated but was very far away from, musically and image-wise), pop music had no idea how to promote black artists. Realizing this, Prince chose to be marketed by the “rock” music division at Warner Brothers. He did not want to be the next Stevie Wonder, albeit Wonder was one of his musical heroes. Forming a multi-gender and multi-racial band (a nod to  his other musical hero, Sly Stone), he chose a mysterious, sometime androgynous onstage and screen persona…and it worked.

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::excerpt from book::

“Prince gets over with everyone because he fulfills everyone’s illusions,” wrote Miles Davis in his autobiography. “He’s got that raunchy thing, almost like a pimp and a bitch all wrapped up in one image, that transvestite thing. But when he’s singing that funky X-rated shit that he does about  sex and women, he’s doing it in a high-pitched voice, in almost a girl’s voice. If I said ‘fuck you’ to somebody, they would be ready to call the police. But if Prince says it in that girl-like voice he uses, then everyone says it’s cute.”

Light, a former senior writer at Rolling Stone and founding music editor and editor-in-chief of Vibe, gathers facts, interviews, and candid moments with Prince and almost everyone affiliated with him during that phase of his career. At one point when working on the record Purple Rain, Prince asks one of his band members why Bob Seger, a fellow Midwestern act (who would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on the same night as Prince), sells out stadiums left and right. The response, which would lead to the creation of the actual ballad “Purple Rain,” notes that Bob Seger has many anthemic power ballads that people can sing along to at the end of his show. And as George Clinton says in the book “‘Purple Rain’ sounds like Jimi Hendrix doing a country-western song.”

As for the actual film, Light delves into, with great detail, the 42-day shoot, a $7.2 million production during a cold Minneapolis winter. The storyline, a loose lifting of Princes’ life and band relationships, left Warner Brothers executives very hesitant and sometimes furious for not understanding “urban youth culture” and how to sell it; this was the same problem they had at the time with the black music division within Warner Brothers. But the ace up Prince’s sleeve was his idea to contextualize this music by having other bands, mostly his own, also showcased in the film. Prince is the star as the sensitive, frilly-dressed band leader, but it is Morris Day who has most of the memorable movie quotes. Featuring these two black male leads on screen would eventually garner eternal global box office love for Prince’s portrayal of “The Kid.”

Wendy Melovin, a member of The Revolution band, explains:

“Prince’s sexuality was unlike anything pop music had ever witnessed. As shocking as Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, and other rock gods had been when they first appeared, he had raised the stakes to a new level. His songs were propelled by how incredibly palpable his sexuality was. He was wearing, for all intents and purposes, women’s clothing and makeup–not dissimilar to Bowie or Little Richard–not being a homosexual, still having a certain amount of badass factor in him, singing in falsetto, and wearing black underwear and high heels. It’s remarkable to me that 20 million people gravitated to that and were like, ‘Not only do I love that music, but he’s fuckable to me.'”