…and both weren’t too bad. Although my focus will primarily be on one of them.
The first was under the umbrella of “Rock Legends” and they’ve done it for many other artists. But it’s the first of these types of “artist profile” documentaries I’d seen of Prince where it’s just been one in a series… opposed to being a standalone special.
I’ll start in saying I’ve recently become pretty leery of documentaries. God knows a million popped up after his death and they focused primarily on that, the circumstances, the what-if’s and unanswered questions, etc. I’ll flat out say those don’t interest me because they’re no better than the tabloids.
Going back a little bit… there was one Prince documentary I saw years ago… it was on VH1 Classic all the time in 2007-8 and I saw it at least 3 times. They called it “Prince of Paisley Park” and it explored his career from the start up to Diamonds & Pearls. And they showed a little of Paisley Park and also interviewed various people who’d worked with him. That was one of my biggest sources of information back then about him. Beside that, it was fan messageboards (before they became cesspools of jaded fans) and the albums. There weren’t a million books about him like there are now… it’s unfortunate all that had to come out of the woodwork after his passing…
I should really call this post “the art of making a Prince documentary” because I am extremely judgemental about them these days. I guess I just feel extra protective of him. The majority of people not part of the fanbase already think he’s a weirdo… we don’t need to add any other negative labels on top of that.
But what I’ve more or less figured out is that you can judge a documentary by the people interviewed. If they’re a lot of people that worked closely with him and have a lot of good things to say and are informative, it’s a good place to be.
Rock Legends were strictly BBC people that were from magazines and so on. But their comments were mostly positive, which I could appreciate. What I was a little leery about is the handful of times where I didn’t think they got their facts straight. I know about Prince’s career well enough to have a lot of the facts stored up in my head. So the way I went through this, I took everything with a grain of salt. It was nice just for him to be talked about that I half ignored a lot of what was being said 😛
As for the latter documentary, I went to Google to read reviews. I found my way to Amazon and the only negative reviews were about the quality of the DVD itself, not its contents. So I knew this would be something worth watching.
For starters, the nice thing about both of these documentaries: they date back to 2014. Prince was still very much with us and he was being discussed in present tense.
So the second documentary is called “Slave Trade: how Prince re-made the music business”… I didn’t want to make this the title of the post because “slave trade” already has a lot of negative connotations to it.
While the interviewees included someone from Spin Magazine and Billboard, they also had Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson from the NPG (gotta say it was REALLY cool having them there because I’d never seen them interviewed before and they had a lot of good insight), Marva King (who was a back-up singer for him in the 2000’s… she had a cool story I loved where they were rehearsing and she closed her eyes and zoned out and he asked her if it was that good, lol), and Alan Leeds.
For those who don’t know, Alan Leeds was Prince’s tour manager in the 80’s. When Paisley Park was built and had its own label, he was appointed its president. I’d also seen him in the Prince of Paisley Park documentary as well as the behind the scenes featurette on the Purple Rain DVD. (His brother Eric Leeds played with Prince as his saxophone player for years). But to me, it seems like he’s always in the really good documentaries so there was a sense of familiarity and comfort he provided. Even during those moments where he was critical of decisions Prince had made, I knew he was knowledgeable enough to know what was right and wrong about the situations that happened.
The other good thing about both these documentaries… they didn’t stop with the 80’s… they covered his career up until his time with 3rd Eye Girl. The two album releases hadn’t happened yet, but they were months away.
So the “Slave Trade” documentary addressed two main things…and they were things I’d been trying to solve for years.
First: Prince’s name change and feud with Warner Bros. in the 90’s
Second: the various ways Prince released his music outside of a major label and how he should probably get a little credit about revolutionizing how music is sold and bought nowadays. Because he did it before anyone else had.
Oh, another person that was interviewed: Jason Draper, who wrote a few books about Prince. One has “Chaos & Disorder” in the title. And listening to some of the things he talked about, he might be another author worth looking into.
It was also kinda nice that “Slave Trade” didn’t go too far into the 80’s or even replayed the same songs and clips from the Rock Legends doc before it.
The beginning was talking about the renewal of Prince’s contract with WB in 1992. He was apparently fixated on having the biggest contract in the industry, bigger than Michael Jackson and Madonna. (To a point, I can kinda see why he wanted more money than anyone else… because he seriously did more than anyone else- composing, playing and performing everything on his albums with a few exceptions here and there).
Prince wanted to make headlines with a $100 million dollar contract. And it was for 6 albums. But according to those interviewed, the fine print of the paperwork stated that it was worth UP TO that number and each of his albums had to sell a certain number of units for him to get the money. (I think the figure was 6 million copies, but I can’t quite remember now). The album he released after the contract was signed didn’t make nearly that much and that’s where the sides began to clash.
Everyone knows Purple Rain was his biggest success at that point in his career, but the road following it was rough commercially. Around the World in a Day did all right and so did Parade (but there was issue with that project because the accompanying film, Under the Cherry Moon, bombed). He wanted to do a triple album called Crystal Ball, but was forced to make it a double album that became Sign o’ the times. The Black Album was to be released next, but he made a last minute decision to cancel its release and LoveSexy followed. With those two albums, he toured Europe and ignored the U.S. so money was lost there. Not to mention both shows had huge productions and sets.
Batman was his next big commercial success. Graffiti Bridge bombed (billing it as a Purple Rain sequel got it made, but it didn’t do him any favors among critics and moviegoers).
Diamonds & Pearls was a commercial triumph- but according to one of the NPG members interviewed, he went out of his way to make it commercial so it would do well, and for the next album, he wanted to do something else. Apparently coming off this new contract, it wasn’t the best move. Not to say the Symbol album is bad… there’s a lot of good stuff on there. But it was impeded by segues that referred back to a vague storyline. (The story is that there were multiple segues that explained the storyline, but all but two were cut because Prince wanted to make room for a new song he wanted to release). The documentary also mentioned how Prince pushed to release a couple of songs as singles that wound up not doing well on the charts. “My Name is Prince” was explicit and had a rap on it. “Sexy M.F.” was so explicit that radios couldn’t play it unless they did some cheesy edit of the titular curse word. Then “7” was released and did better than the other two, but that song was WB’s first choice and Prince’s 3rd. (Personally, I don’t like those first two songs all that much).
In my head, what came next out of this part in Prince’s career was the Come and Gold Experience albums. But there were apparently a few others that added to the feud as well.
One was an NPG album called Gold Nigga- the songs were written by Prince with the NPG, but they were performed by Tony Mosley, the rapper that was the focus of a lot of ire from the fanbase. (It took me a little while to get used to Tony. His stuff on D&P isn’t too bad, but other than his rap on “My Name is Prince” and the questionnaire part of “Love 2 the 9’s” I really didn’t like what he added to the Symbol album). And Prince wounded up selling that album via a 1-800-number.
Then there was The Undertaker, 7 songs which Prince did with Michael Bland and Sonny Thompson in one live session… I will admit to owning bootlegs of some unreleased Prince stuff and this is one shining example. I’d read recently how WB seized every copy that they could and did something to the discs that rendered them unplayable… that hurt my heart to read about, can’t imagine how Prince must have felt.
Also during this time, the name change came about… actually it predated both releases. The name change was his 35th birthday. And there’s a lot involved with it, a lot of reasons.
1) Prince came to a point where he realized/decided that WB used his name to sell product and he wanted to separate himself from that
2) he simply wanted to divorce himself from his past…
3) then there are the people that think changing his name would get him out of the contract… I don’t think he ever thought along those lines…
The first option I can totally understand… and I think that one and two could both be the truth simultaneously.
Mayte (his back-up dancer who was married to him for a few years) wrote in her book how he told her about changing his name and a voice inside him told him to do that, and that’s the same voice that spoke to him when he wrote Purple Rain. Couple that with the fact he became a Jehovah’s Witness and took all of the explicit content out of his music to conform to that part of the religion, plus a lot of statements he’s made in his music over the years…
I’m inclined to believe that Prince reached a point where he wanted to divorce himself from his past because he was either ashamed of or regretted some of the things he did on stage or things he wrote about. There was this constant struggle between the explicit material and his spirituality. He added the gospel portion at the end of Darling Nikki as a means of salvation. “Temptation” talked about lust and there was a dialogue with God that followed where he says how “love is more important than sex”… and “Anna Stesia” went into it as well where he decides he wants to learn to love the right way and he needs to get in touch with his higher self…
I really do think the name change had just as much to do with that.
I don’t quite remember when it happened, but Prince started writing “Slave” on his face after a point. Whenever he went to meet with the board or did appearances and performances, it was there. The label was pretty much telling him to release music whenever they wanted, opposed to when the muse spoke to him and he wanted his music to be available to the public as soon as he’d finished recording it. Because by the time it does reach the public domain, he is already in another space, onto the next project, and he doesn’t want to spend his energy promoting something that’s old news to him.
Some other things that I learned about this was how the people Prince had worked with at WB, who fostered his career, they had their own bosses to answer to and they were no longer the ones Prince was dealing with directly. I forgot how they phrased it, but there was a moment where it was said that everyone who worked with Prince at the company was removed or redistributed so no one who remained had any loyalty specifically to him.
I heard from Prince how the presidents at the company were changing a lot during that time. But to hear it put in that way, it really did help me visualize this feud. In every clash he had with the record company previous to this, with the exception of Crystal Ball, Prince won the dispute. And now that wasn’t going to be possible anymore. It made me feel kinda bad for him.
One thing I really liked about the documentary… it really discussed a lot of the albums that really don’t get talked about.
Come is my second favorite after Purple Rain. And the people being interviewed really liked it. Although it does have a caveat or two. (The opening and ending tracks are extremely suggestive… and since this album was considered a “contractual obligation” by Prince, some people think this move was deliberate).
The Gold Experience wasn’t gone into quite as much… they did mention The Most Beautiful Girl in the World, which wound up on this album. But it was his first independent release, something WB allowed to happen, thinking it was going to fail… it wound up being one of his biggest commercial successes. (Sadly, the majority of people believe it was his FINAL commercial success). It was funny Michael Bland talking about that and saying how Prince did it with a ballad. It made me think back to Graffiti Bridge where someone says The Kid beat Morris Day with a ballad 😛 and I added “yeah, who saw that coming?”
It was also interesting him mentioning how Prince would actually talk to them about things that happened in the latest meetings and he would vent to them… that was shocking to me cuz I didn’t think Prince discussed this stuff with anyone else 😛 but I guess even he has to vent. And according to Michael Bland, some of those session they had were very tense because of that. Makes me kinda wonder which songs were recorded at that time…
Chaos & Disorder and The Vault were mentioned briefly under the contractual obligation umbrella. Those two albums, after hearing them for myself just last year, to me they do feel like they are. There are some good songs, but the majority is subpar quality. It felt like random songs Prince took out of the Vault and shoved on an album.
Come and The Gold Experience are noteworthy also because Prince wanted to release those albums on the same day to see which of them would do better in the charts… Come was dubbed old Prince material and Gold was dubbed as newer material and it was the album Prince really wanted to release. It was a huge deal to him, especially since he went on shows like David Letterman where he’d be performing a song from an album that would never be released. (Apparently during this time there were some snarky press releases from WB as well where they wrote with symbols and shorthand, as Prince often did… so things were pretty heated )
finally there came a point where they decided to settle… cut each other’s losses… it was clear after that first album that Prince wasn’t getting his $100 million dollars… and WB just wanted to be rid of him because he was trashing them so much in concert and in the press… I think it finally came to an impasse when he released “Exodus”- another NPG album but with Sonny as the lead singer, and the main titular lyric was “the exodus has begun”… and Sonny was pretty much the mouthpiece Prince was using to point the figure at his label.
Emancipation has a lot of history and is why I wanted to have the album. Prince said it was the album he was born to make, 3 hours of music on three discs with each being an hour each. It celebrated his freedom from WB, him marrying Mayte and the two of them becoming parents… now I understand the freedom part of it a little better. I always thought he was celebrating being out of his contract, but he wouldn’t take his name back until 2000. So it sounds like the freedom he was celebrating was that fact he and WB finally resolving their feud and agreeing to part ways.
Oh and before that they also mentioned him conceding to release the Black Album to contribute to getting out of his contract… they actually showed a commercial for it, talking about it being the infamous Black Album and it’ll only be available for a short time… there was a lot of footage in this documentary I hadn’t even seen, so that was really cool 😛
from that point, they talked about different albums and how he changed his pattern in their releases…
Crystal Ball was sold over the Internet, but there was a lot of confusion on how it was handled and supposedly people who bought it in stores got it before the people who preordered.
NewPower Soul was mentioned as his first album of new material in ages (the last two boxsets were full of Vault material) but it was under the New Power Generation name and didn’t do well commercially.
There was one mistake in this documentary… they called Rave “In2 the Joy Fantastic”… that’s the title of the remix album he released… I was screaming at the TV over that…
not that it matters… it was a one time deal with Arista and Clive Davis, who had success with Santana’s Supernatural album that revitalized his career and he wanted to do that same for Prince. But there were issues between the two about how the album was or was not promoted. To my knowledge, it was Prince’s worst selling album ever.
the NPG Music Club was mentioned where fans could subscribe and get one-off experimental albums and extra good seats at concerts and stuff… I think it lasted until 2005 or 2006…
Jason Draper, I think, mentioned one of them was the One Night Alone and how it was a good album and it’s a shame most people don’t know about it.
then they mentioned Musicology being given away with the concert ticket and counting towards the total record sales. And that was the time he started bringing back the old stuff and giving more preference to it than the newer stuff- they said that was an ideal business model that a lot of other old acts started doing cuz fans like to come for the hits instead of the new stuff… Prince got a lot of crap about this from the hardcore fans, though.
3121 was a one-off deal with Universal.
Planet Earth was given away with a newspaper in the UK and they said how that was a very successful business model… they also said that newspaper hadn’t sold that many copies since the issue that covered Princess Diana’s death… considering how the fan community gives that album such a hard time, that was great to hear how it was commercially successful. (The album isn’t perfect, but there are a lot of songs on it I really love). And the album’s release in the UK in that way was also cross-promotion for his 21 night residency at O2 arena.
20TEN was released via newspaper as well, but sadly it wasn’t nearly as successful… which sucks because in some ways, it’s a better album than Planet Earth.
Lotusflow3r was released through a website, but it was also a 3-disc set sold exclusively through Target… but it was another commercial failure.
Prince had only just started working with 3rd Eye Girl when the documentary came to an end.
The commercials weren’t often, but they were enough to make this run for nearly 3 hours- 9pm too 11:50… but it was totally worth it 😛 it’s not like it’s the first time I’d been up this late watching something having to do with Prince.