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Jesse Wente on Prince: "Thank God He Tried to be in Movies"

RIP, Purple One

by Jesse Wente
Apr 29, 2016

It's only been a week since Prince was found dead in his recording studio, but in that short time it feels like the world has changed forever. Prince’s enduring legacy in pop culture, music and cinema knows no bounds. He was tiny funky weirdo that made it sexy to be wild, genderless and completely out there. No one was more free than Prince onstage and the sheer joy and talent he shared with audiences around the world allowed them to unshackle themselves from their own hang-ups, if only for an evening. Prince liberated us all.

From his iconic performance in Purple Rain to his work as both director and performer on Sign o' the Times and Graffiti Bridge (Purple Rain’s sequel), Prince was constantly playing with the moving image. His music videos for “Diamonds And Pearls,” “Gett Off” and his 1986 directorial debut Under The Cherry Moon were full of high style and melodrama. Here, TIFF programmer Jesse Wente tries to answer the impossible — what will Prince be remembered for and what did he give us? In short: everything.


“I don’t know if one can truly measure the influence of an artist like Prince. What influence has Mozart had, or Beethoven, or any of these people? They’ve inspired, they’ve changed, they’ve influenced, they’ve delighted… Singular artists like that are so rare.

Would any part of music be the same without someone like Prince? I don’t think so. Culturally, he transcended the art. He embodied a lot of things. He had a bunch of women in his band before that was even a thing. In the history of black entertainment, he was both a descendant or a cousin of artists like James Brown, or Michael Jackson — and yet wholly his own. Prince’s approach to gender was maybe even more progressive or elusive.”

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“He’s always played around with film. The songs are omnipresent, and he pops up curiously in weird places. In his comedy appearances, he was very playful with his own persona and who he is. Even the idea of his symbol being in the credits of Fargo... He doesn’t play the body in the field, he was given the credit for it as an honour to a great Minnesotan.

Prince had a very weird film career. He was not primarily a cinema artist, but ultimately, the thing to remember is: thank god he tried to be in movies. Because at least we have a visual record. We will always be able to watch Purple Rain, and there is real magic in that.

Purple Rain obviously was a huge influence on music videos and that aesthetic carried over. His songs have appeared in innumerable movies, sometimes to great effect. Julia Roberts sings “Kiss” in the bathtub in Pretty Woman, he did the soundtrack for Spike Lee’s Girl 6...

When I go back and watch Tim Burton’s Batman now, I’m often struck by the Prince score to that movie. I think at the time, people maybe thought it was comical — they didn’t quite know what to make of it. And now, it’s just awesome: it’s an integral part of that particular movie. As an actor, Purple Rain’s the highlight for me. Prince made the two films afterwards, which weren’t great movies, but I’ve always loved Purple Rain. It’s a different sort of art piece and it’s got Morris Day and the Time in it. It’s so awesome.”


“I wish I could give you a simple answer. It’s very interesting with people like Prince or Bowie because there’s a moment in their career where you realize, 'that is who they are.' And as someone who owned every Prince album and was a huge fan, of course we have nostalgia for our own heroes. But are there people now like Prince? You don’t get artists like that. He influenced everything. The world would not be the same without these people having lived on it.

He was a pioneer in terms of fighting for his own rights, masters and his own space. And I remember going to a concert of his in Toronto and the deal was that you got his new album with your ticket to the show. Which at the time seemed revolutionary and very ground-breaking. I thought it was a great idea. In the last quarter of his career, it seemed like it was all about having a direct relationship with his fans.

If there’s anything that’s amazing about Prince it's that he was authentically himself the entire time. And what’s amazing is that his authentic self was weird and just untaggable, or unboxable. You need those transcendent folks, the folks you can’t deny. Because there’s no way you could listen to a Prince song and not go 'wow, he’s a genius.' Even the most hardened record executive could not listen to a Prince song and go, 'well, we can do without.' Because I don’t think you can do without Prince.”