Music: His Highness of Haze

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Purple house, Purple Rain: Prince scores across the spectrum

Stumped. For a long minute, anyhow.

When Apollonia asked Prince—and yes, those are their real names, approximately—"Is there anything you can't do?" there was a lingering silence. A tough question to put to such a tyro. More silence. A fast career review was clearly in order.

There would be no question of just skipping to the highlights: since 1978, when Warner Bros. Records released his first album when he was 17, for Prince it has been highlights all the way. For You was not the hottest seller in the stores, but the fact that Prince had written, produced and played all the instruments on his first effort got the press making comparisons to Stevie Wonder. There were four more albums and a wonderful grab bag of singles like When You Were Mine and Little Red Corvette. Now there is Purple Rain, a No. 1 sound-track album with a No. 1 single, When Doves Cry, that is the first song since Billie Jean to reach the top slots simultaneously on the pop, black and dance charts. Purple Rain had already sold nearly 2.5 million copies before the movie was released last Friday. This is serious business. So is the movie, a short-circuited psychodrama that grafts snazzy performance footage onto the fictive fever chart of an angst-ridden musician called The Kid and played by Prince himself. The movie has been pulling down real tub-thumper reviews, the sort of hot-seat hype that gives some indication of the way Prince can generate fever and keep the temperature high.

He does it with a peculiar combination of ambisexual eroticism and self-mythologizing. Until Purple Rain, Prince played at being a prisoner of sex who craved a life sentence. Some of his song titles sounded like cuts on a Pigmeat Markham party record (Head, Soft and Wet). If there was a unifying theme to his lyrics—indeed, a governing obsession—it was that carnal knowledge is the ultimate wisdom. Party till you drop, make out till you molder: self-realization through rutting.

Purple Rain, both album and movie, is designed for wider consumption.

Prince's performing entourage still includes young women attired in flash-happy lingerie. But Prince has dispensed with performing in his leopardskin skivvies, and for the movie camera, dresses up in high-heeled boots, ruffled shirts, brocaded jackets. If anyone notices the similarly suited ghost of Jimi Hendrix floating about, so much the better. Hendrix's classic Purple Haze has left all sorts of echoes around Prince's neighborhood, and not just in the music. Prince has both mastered the Hendrix style and contemporized it; he has become something of a past master at haze in general.

The plot of Purple Rain, which Scenarist William Blinn (Roots, Fame) and first-time Feature Director Albert Magnoli both deny is specifically biographical, nevertheless hews roughly to the broad outlines of Prince's life. (Prince declines all interviews.) Shot entirely in Minneapolis, where Prince Rogers Nelson was born and grew up, and where he became a regent of the local music scene even before that first album came out in 1978, the movie uses everyone's real name for characters ("We've all called Prince 'The Kid' for a long time," says Band Member Lisa Coleman) and a lot of real locations.

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