It’s been one year since Prince passed away and fans have taken to the internet today to post remembrances. In the spirit of that, we’re re-running a few articles that call attention to Prince, his life, his music, and his uniqueness.
By 1983, Prince had released five albums. The first four — For You, Prince, Dirty Mind, Controversy — all performed well. (Prince and Controversy were both certified platinum; “I Wanna Be Your Lover” off Prince hit number 11 on Billboard’s charts.) But it was 1999 that put Prince in front of a wider audience with massive radio airplay.
And it was 1999 that spawned Prince’s first music videos with a real chance of being seen. What had been primarily promotional clips – something even The Beatles were doing in the late 1960s – were now called music videos and were catching fire thanks to MTV (or, for a large amount of people who didn’t have MTV, there was Friday Night Videos on NBC and Night Tracks on what was then called WTBS). Problem was, MTV, now notoriously, wasn’t playing music videos from African-American artists.
This changed with Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” and Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.” Prince had made a video for the song “1999,” but it received sporadic airplay, at least at first. (Then a lot later.) “Little Red Corvette,” a single that would peak at number 6 on the Billboard charts, was the video that introduced the viewing public to Prince.
(Note: In the amount of time I’ve been working on this piece, I’ve seen a few online versions of this video come and then be taken down. You can still find it, but I don’t want to link to it because that’s a surefire way it will be taken down.)
In I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Lisa Coleman of The Revolution remembers, “We were on tour when ‘Little Red Corvette’ started doing well on radio, so we squeezed in a video. A director flew in, we set up our gear at the venue in Jacksonville, and Prince threw together some choreography.”
Prince and The Revolution played Jacksonville on February 19, 1983. The director Coleman refers to is Bryan Greenberg.
Greenberg, almost strangely at that time, already had a lot of experience shooting music videos. Michael Nesmith (yes, the Michael Nesmith from The Monkees), had started a show for Nickelodeon called PopClips that ran weekly in 1979. PopClips was the granddaddy of all music video shows and introduced the idea of VJs. (It was initially supposed to have comedians in-between the videos, but that idea was quickly scrapped.) Eventually, as Nesmith became less involved, Greenberg became one of the people running the show.
Even by 1983, there weren’t a lot of people who knew how to make music videos. So, as Greenberg explains today, it really wasn’t that strange to find out on short notice that he’d be flying from Los Angeles to Florida to film a music video for Prince.
“Warner Bros. found us, they called us up, and next thing you know, [producer] Beth [Broday] and I are sitting in front of [Prince’s manager at the time] Steve Fargnoli, talking about doing a video for Prince.”
The deal was, they’d fly to Lakewood, Florida, where Prince was rehearing, and film a video for “Little Red Corvette” and Vanity 6’s “Drive Me Wild.” Greenberg recalls the budget was minuscule, under $20,000, “and their only stipulation before agreeing to shoot the video was that they wanted half the budget paid immediately… in cash.”
The original plan for the “Little Red Corvette” video was quite different than what was eventually produced. There was always supposed to be the stage work we see, but also another part filmed with Prince and Vanity driving around in a red Corvette. When Vanity died in February, Prince performed “Little Red Corvette” and dedicated it to her – and, as it turned out, she was almost the co-star of the video.
Greenberg remembers, “Originally we were going to shoot the next day. It was actually a night shoot. It was him and Vanity rolling around in a red Corvette that was going to be towed around this little lake. It was really beautiful, a really pretty area we were filming around where we were shooting. But, at the time, Prince hadn’t done anything outside of being onstage. And he’s very shy. He really keeps to himself. So I always knew in the back of my head that I just don’t think he’s going to do this. He wouldn’t have control. He wouldn’t be able to control the situation.”
After a day of shooting the stage work, both Greenberg and Prince mutually agreed to nix the whole Corvette part. “At the end of the day,” Greenberg recalls, “Prince looked at me and I looked at him and it was like, ‘You know, we’ve got the video. We don’t need to do any more. This will work.’ And we both kind of decided we had the video. I literally took the crew out to Epcot Center the next day instead of shooting.”
Oh, yes, the video we actually see, which is Prince performing what appears to be a concert (in reality, he’s not in front of an audience), highlighted by a dance across the stage that culminates with Prince doing the splits. (Prince neglected to tell anyone he was going to do the splits.) When Greenberg and Broday arrived, Prince already knew what he wanted. But this was Prince’s first time working with film (his prior videos were shot on videotape) and, while he may have known what he wanted, he didn’t yet know exactly what he was doing. And he didn’t always share with Greenberg what his plan was.
Greenberg says, “He wouldn’t always tell me what it was he was doing. When he does that little dance across the stage, he does the splits. And this is only because he didn’t know; he didn’t know how to work with a director or DP, this was all new to him. This is before Purple Rain and this is his first experience with film. So, he didn’t tell me what he was going to do. He said, ‘Just follow me.’ So I follow him and he does the splits and he drops below my camera. You can’t just drop! It doesn’t work that way. So I explained to him how we needed to do that. We did it two more times and that take is actually the third take of that sequence.”
It’s here that it should be noted again: Yes, they had now completed a brand-spanking new Prince video that would eventually become one of the most-seen music videos in history – but, at the time, they didn’t know that because, again, MTV wasn’t really playing videos from African-American artists.
Greenberg remembers, “We finished the video, it comes out, and people were still wondering what to do with it… Obviously everybody went away happy. Nobody ever thought when we finished the video, ‘Oh my God, we just did something that will live on forever.’”
(They also finished the video for Vanity 6’s “Drive Me Wild,” which ends with a big party scene on the same stage where Prince danced to “Little Red Corvette.” Greenberg remembers this video as a very different experience, “Prince was dragging me around, ‘Shoot this guy doing this.’ It was very freeform.”)
Prince could be, let’s say, eccentric and, at the time, he was still only 24. Beth Broday has said she wasn’t allowed to speak directly to Prince (a story Greenberg confirms), which, to her credit, she wasn’t having. As she told Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks for I Want My MTV, “I walked over to him and said, ‘I was told not to talk to you, but I can’t work like that. I need to communicate with you or this is not gonna work, okay?’ And he said, ‘Okay.’ That’s all he said, but at least it was something.”
The way Greenberg remembers Prince is kind of like the way he remembers a lot of the rock stars he’s worked with (and he’s worked with everyone from Michael Jackson to Van Halen): They all have egos and Prince was not an exception, “Prince had that big-time rock star persona, even back then.” Prince was very shy, which sometimes made it especially hard to break through. But Greenberg remembers a specific moment with Prince he cherishes – a moment, we can assume, not many people got to experience.
“So, Prince literally flew me into New York to cut the Vanity 6 video,” Greenberg says. “And by this time we’d been around each other for a while. At some point in that edit session – we almost edited for almost 24 hours-straight; we had one day to do it, it was crazy – but somewhere in the middle of that, Prince finally decides, okay, you’re part of my group, part of the entourage. I had made it past the gate. And he was there being himself, not Prince – being a person. And he was very funny. He had a quick dry wit. And there was a moment where we were just connected on a personal level that hadn’t happened before. And I left feeling good about that. That he felt relaxed and comfortable enough around me that he didn’t have to carry that persona. He could be more himself, the way he’d be around friends. So, I got to see the real person for a little while and he was a genius. And I was glad I experienced the person as a real person – to see he was a real human with humor who was sensitive about things and really liked the people around him. I felt good I saw that side of him.”
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.