By Chelsea Spear
In the days following Prince’s death, a series of memes made the rounds comparing the songwriting and guest-appearance credits on the fallen icon’s albums to those of Beyonce’s recent release Lemonade. These charts reinforced the rockiest belief that artists who write their own songs and play all their instruments are true artists, where pop singers who collaborate with songwriters to achieve their vision are puppets in thrall to their record companies.
If Prince were alive to see these memes, he would probably respond with the same shady expression immortalized in so many reaction gifs. Though he wrote all his songs, played many of the instruments on his albums, and produced much of his recorded output, he had a strong interest in collaboration—particularly with accomplished female artists who had strong perspectives. Esperenza Spalding, Misty Copeland, Sheila E., and—yes—Beyonce worked side-by-side with Prince at different points in his career.
Purple Rain, Prince’s signature work, is a testament to his belief in female artists. The film is not without its problems in terms of depicting his female collaborators, but Prince’s relationship with the Revolution, particularly with Wendy and Lisa, is the heart of the film.
By the time Prince conceived Purple Rain, he’d already released five albums. He wrote, arranged, produced, and played all the instruments on his first two albums. Critics like Greil Marcus championed the work of Prince, and the Rolling Stones and Rick James invited him to open for them. His 1982 album 1999 became the seventh highest-selling album of the year, peaking at #9 on the Billboard charts; his tour dates in support of that album were bumped from clubs to theatres and smaller arenas.
Wendy Melvoin was among Prince’s early adopters. In Alan ’s book Let’s Go Crazy, she mentions hearing one of his early singles at an LA discotheque and asking the DJ who the girl singing the song about “want[ing] a lover who’s soft and wet” was. When his previous keyboardist Gayle Chapman dropped out of his band, Prince invited Melvoin’s childhood friend Lisa Coleman to join The Revolution on the Dirty Mind tour. Eventually Melvoin joined Coleman on the road. “I was in [Lisa’s] room, and I was practicing,” she recalled to the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Apparently, Prince was walking to his room and heard guitar music. He knocked on the door, ‘Who’s playing, ‘cause I know it ain’t you [Lisa].’ I played some hotshot progression, and he looked at me with that kind of twinkle in his eyes. Didn’t say much. Then he asked me to join a sound check in the Carolinas when [guitarist] Dez [Dickerson] didn’t come to sound check. I played ‘Controversy’ and got asked to join the band.”
Prince’s career began just before MTV launched, and while the network’s unspoken segregation prevented the artist from debuting his material there, he became a matinee idol for the music video age when his videos made the playlist. The “1999” video, in particular showed off the diversity of The Revolution, with Prince’s frenetic dance moves, four-octave vocal range, musical derring-do, and undeniable charisma at the center of the apocalyptic disco. The videos for “1999” and “Little Red Corvette” were among the station’s most popular videos, which made a jump to other forms of media like feature films seem inevitable.
Even at this point in his career, Prince collaborated with strong female artists who had a point of view. In addition to Coleman and Melvoin, the artist sought out keyboardist Gayle Coleman for his first live band, and Berklee professor Susan Rogers engineered Prince’s albums with The Revolution. In light of Prince’s love of women, you would think the gender politics in Purple Rain would be more progressive. Sadly, you would be wrong. While the film portrays a cycle of family abuse that Prince’s character, The Kid, tries to break, it also depicts violence against women in a problematic way. In a throwaway scene, Morris Day and Jimmy Jam throw a backup dancer in a dumpster to a campy, player-piano sound cue; in other scenes, The Kid gets so angry that he smacks his protégée Apollonia across the face. While the film tries to address its own misogyny by placing The Kid in a cycle of abuse, the top-of-the-line crew didn’t have the experience to pull off this narrative in a believable way. The ham-handed script and direction, combined with the cast’s general lack of acting ability, gives Purple Rain the feel of an afterschool special or an educational film. At the same time, the film climaxes with an electrifying rendition of the title track, which the film versions of Wendy and Lisa had been trying to play for Prince throughout the film. Like the rest of Purple Rain, its denouement is complicated—it acknowledges the work that Wendy and Lisa did, but it also suggests that the biggest issue of The Kid’s misogyny is that it keeps him from being a star.
The myth of Purple Rain and the image of The Revolution as a multi-ethnic, male and female-comprised rock/funk machine eclipses the problems of the movie. The bond the band members have works especially well because they’d played together for so long that they felt like family. In Spin’s 2009 oral history of Purple Rain, Coleman recalls “from the very early days, we were controversial. We were black and white, we were girls and boys, and we were traveling together. We’d go to truck stops in Bible Belt country, and people would look at us like they wanted to kill us. But we were like brothers and sisters. We loved each other.”
Prince wanted a diverse band, in part to get more fans, and saw Wendy and Lisa as the LGBT representatives within the Revolution. Melvoin spoke about this to Out magazine in 2009: “We had a photo shoot for the Purple Rain poster. We were all in our different positions and he at one point walked over to me and Wendy and lifted my arm up and put my hand around Wendy’s waist and said, ‘There’. And that is the poster. That’s how precise he was about how he wanted the image of the band to be. He wanted it to be way more obvious. We weren’t just the two girls in the band.”
Prince’s protectiveness towards Wendy and Lisa seems paradoxical at this point, since in his later years he would become a Jehovah’s Witness—a religious sect that views homosexuality as a sin. Rumors circulated on the internet that Prince would only take the pair back into his band if they renounced their sexual orientation and joined his religion. Coleman spoke of their tension in the Spin retrospective: “He has hinted to Wendy and myself recently that he can’t condone who we are or be friendly in a certain way. We both have kids now with other partners—he’s been a little less than Uncle Prince. So that hurts, especially because he liked that element in his band back then. We were trying to mix it up and bust the categories: Androgyny and multiracialism was the way to go. I always feel he should open up and be honest because he’s such a fucking cool guy.”
By the time of Prince’s death in April of 2016, Wendy and Lisa had reconciled with him and they had played together for a handful of one-off shows. While the rift may not have completely healed, the trio made some beautiful music that continues to resonate with old followers and new fans alike.