Prince's Career on Camera: Insiders Recall Late Genius' Difficult Relationship with Music Videos

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Prince photographed on stage in 1984.

MTV and Prince matured at the same time. The network didn’t exist when he released his first album in 1978, and for a few years, his videos seemed like tossed-off afterthoughts, made during off hours while, say, his Paisley Park recording studio was being vacuumed. For its part, MTV was losing money and close to being shut down, until the magic year of 1984.

“1984 was our tipping point,” MTV co-founder John Sykes said when Billboard editor Craig Marks and I interviewed him for I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, our oral history of the network’s creation and first decade. “It was an incredible year for music.” Top-selling albums that year included Van Halen’s 1984, the Cars’ Heartbeat City, Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, the Police’s Synchronicity, ZZ Top’s Eliminator, and Purple Rain, by Prince and the Revolution, each a blockbuster album by an artist who’d been around for years. 

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With Purple Rain, Prince leapfrogged MTV by making and starring in a Hollywood feature that grossed more than $80 million; the film won an Oscar, and Prince became a household name. In the following years, he maintained an uneasy relationship with music videos, eschewing familiar tropes and avoiding big-name directors, often directing them himself. 

That elusiveness and independence helps explain why so many people we interviewed told us hilarious stories about Prince – he was the video artist with little use for the video industry. Some loved him; others had quite the opposite reaction. Collectively, these anecdotes paint the picture of a guy with a wicked sense of humor and a soft voice, loved mineral oil and woolen underpants, but apparently hated video directors. 

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Lenny Kravitz: The first time I saw MTV, I was on vacation with my parents in the Bahamas. The hotel had MTV. It was beautiful outside, 80 degrees and sunny, and I spent the whole week in the room, watching MTV, 24/7. My parents were like, “My god, what is wrong with you?” I wanted to watch videos all day. Duran Duran, Prince, Hall & Oates, Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes,” Talking Heads, Bow Wow Wow, Haircut 100, Adam & the Ants. That’s when MTV was MTV. God bless MTV, but it ain’t MTV no more. 

Paul Flattery, producer: Warner Bros. Records had me make some early Prince videos, because he was difficult and they felt I could handle him. [Director] Bruce Gowers and I shot “Controversy” and “Sexuality” in one day. Prince wouldn’t talk to you directly. He’d be standing right in front of you, and he’d whisper something to his assistant, and the assistant would say, “Prince says...” And so I would say, “Well, tell Prince…” 

Sharon Oreck, producer: Prince’s “1999” and "Little Red Corvette" videos were just smoke, then Prince’s face, then smoke, then Prince's butt, and then smoke. I liked the songs, but the videos were profoundly bad. They were, like, porn bad. His videos were so filled with smoke that everyone on the set got diarrhea, because mineral oil was so thick in the air. 

Beth Broday, producer: I got a call from Warner Bros. when I was producing music videos out of my apartment in West Hollywood: “Prince is gonna go down to Lakeland, Florida, where he’ll be rehearsing for his live show. We’d like you to shoot a song called ‘Little Red Corvette.’” I brought Brian Greenberg, a young director, with me. Prince’s manager, Steve Fargnoli, sat me down and told me I was not allowed to talk to Prince unless he talked to me. I’m like, “Uhhh, excuse me? How’s that gonna work?” 

So we get down to Florida, and the stage show is all set up. I meet Prince for the first time. He looked at me and Brian and he said, “Just shoot me doing what I do. That’s all you need to do. Follow me across the stage. I’m like, “Okay, you got it.” When the meeting ended, 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. 

When he hit that stage and began to sing and move, he was right, of course — you didn’t need a concept. You didn’t need anything but him. When everything was signed off and we were in the edit room, he walked across the room, looked up at me — I’m 5’8” — and simply said, “Thank you very much.” 

Fab Five Freddy, host, Yo! MTV Raps: In those days, you’d see the occasional Michael Jackson or Prince video on MTV, but for the most part, it was TV apartheid. 

Lisa Coleman, keyboardist, Prince and the Revolution: MTV wasn’t playing black artists. That became a challenge, because you knew that if you weren’t on MTV, you weren’t going to make it. So management and Prince decided to focus on him as a performer, rather than make concept videos.  

In early ’83, the “1999” video got a tiny bit of MTV play. “Little Red Corvette” was the next single. We were on the road when it started doing well on radio, so we squeezed in a video shoot in Jacksonville, during a few days off between gigs. A director flew down, we set up our gear at the venue, Prince threw together some choreography, and we shot it. When “Little Red Corvette” started getting played on MTV, we really felt vindicated. Before we came along, music was considered either rock & roll or it was R&B. It was either black or it was white. We’d always felt that it was part of our cause to push the envelope.

Jeana Tomasina Keough, Playboy playmate: After I did ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin’” video, I had a chance to audition for a guy named Prince in Minneapolis, for "Purple Rain," I wouldn’t go. I said, “There’s no Prince in Minneapolis, they must think I’m stupid.” 

Simon Fields, producer: I produced most of Prince’s video between 1980 and 1990. He hardly talked to me for the first year; he was very shy. Then he grew to trust me. Which sometimes meant having to fire directors before they’d even started. We’d fly in a director and Prince would whisper in my ear, “Get rid of him.” So I would, and Prince would direct the video himself.

I hired Larry Williams to direct “When Doves Cry.” Before the first shot, Prince said to me, “He doesn’t have to be here.” So I gave Larry a few magazines, and he sat outside and did some reading.

Sharon Oreck, producer: Prince was cuckoo paranoid. When I produced "When Doves Cry,” I didn’t know what the concept was until the day of the shoot. The director, Larry Williams, had worked with Prince on some still photographs. I'm like, "Well, what do you want me to do as the producer?” He said, “Just get a stage, a crew, a bunch of cameras, a bunch of smoke and some doves.” A crapload of smoke, and a crapload of doves. The day before we're going to shoot, I was told, "Paint a room purple and get a bathtub and some candles." And the bathtub wrangler had to get three bathtubs, so Prince could choose. We were finally told that Prince would be in the bathtub naked, then crawl around on the floor. The day of shooting, he got there six hours late. He’d tell Steve Fargnoli to put this here and that there, then Steve would tell Simon Fields, then Simon would tell me, then I would tell someone else. 

At one point Prince told Steve, "Tell Simon to get me a pair of woolen underpants." So we got him this teeny-weeny size of long underwear. He had the wardrobe person snip them down into a tiny little banana hammock for him, and then dye it purple. And that’s what he wore when he was in the bathtub.

Jeff Ayeroff, Warner Bros. Records creative director: Prince was more interested in Prince than he was in video. He didn’t want to give up control. He would never have hired, say, David Fincher, because when you hired Fincher, Fincher was in charge. Prince wouldn’t allow that. Not to say that Prince was right or wrong. I mean, he's Prince.

Sharon Oreck: For [Prince protégé] Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life,” I was drafted to go to a meeting with Prince on the Warners’ lot in West Hollywood, to discuss important things about the video. [Director] Mary Lambert was introduced, and told everyone what she had in mind: “We’ll shoot performance footage, and she'll be bathed in colors and light, and she'll look stunning, and we'll also do a little narrative and Sheila will explore her sexuality and life and love…” It was mostly horseshit — that’s what you did, you said this kind of stuff. When she was done, everyone was like, It sounds great. And then, quietly, almost in a whisper, Prince said something that sounded like, “Sheila should have drumsticks on her." But no one could hear him. The table went silent. Steve Fargnoli, Prince’s manager, who’s this super-handsome Italian guy, huddled with Prince and said, "Prince says Sheila should have drumsticks on her pants." And they got up and left. Prince was there for ten minutes. 

After he left, I was like, “Do they mean real drumsticks taped on her pants?” We figured out that he meant fabric drumsticks sewn into the pants. And of course, Jeff Ayeroff from Warner Bros. said, "Mary, she better not be wearing fucking drumsticks on those pants." We're like, you tell him! That’s how things worked around Prince. No one ever said no to him. And she ended up with drumsticks on her pants. They were the silliest pants I've ever seen.

Lisa Coleman: He basically directed his own videos. He would get help from people on the technical side, but he didn’t let anyone else have creative control. It was part of his total megalomania. 

Mary Lambert: I met Prince when I was hired to do Sheila E.’s “The Glamorous Life.” He had two stylists named Louis and Vaughn. When I was introduced to them, it looked like they’d made their entire wardrobe out of chenille bathroom rugs and toilet-seat coverings. They were the most bizarre clothes I’d ever seen. The weirdest thing, though, was that they designed a wardrobe for Sheila E. that could barely fit a Barbie doll. They were itty-bitty-teeny-weeny. She’s small and thin, but these clothes weren’t going to fit anybody. On the day of the shoot, she tried them on and couldn’t even get her legs in them. They had to put extenders in the pants. We never did zip them up.

Sharon Oreck: When we cast “Glamorous Life,” we hired a really handsome black guy to play Sheila E’s love interest. A short while later, we heard back from Simon Fields that Prince’s camp didn’t like him, and we couldn’t hire him. Mary Lambert said, “Why don’t they like him? Is he too tall? Too short?" And finally Simon said, "They don’t want a black guy." We were like, "What are you talking about? She's black!” We were told they wanted the record to cross over, so there needed to be a white boyfriend. Mary and I were appalled. 

Randy Skinner: I was editing a Prince video with Albert Magnoli, who directed Purple Rain. All of a sudden, Albert says, “Prince is coming.” The rule was, Don’t look at Prince. Don’t talk to Prince. So I huddled in a corner, thinking, “Oh God, what do I do?” He came in, walked right up to me, said “Hello,” and put out his hand. I was thinking, “Oh shit! Do I look at him, do I shake the hand, do I not shake the hand?” So I shook the hand. And he was lovely, actually.

Lisa Coleman: When we started making Purple Rain, Prince was talking about it being a cult film, like Rocky Horror. A midnight movie. Then Al Magnoli came on to direct, and said to Prince, “Don't sell yourself short. You’ve got some great songs here. Let’s make this a hit movie.” Management started seeing stars in their eyes. And cha-ching, it actually worked.

Daniel Kleinman, video director: The most difficult person I’ve ever worked with, beyond a doubt — far worse than anyone else — was Prince. He’s a nasty little guy. I filmed a live concert with him. He communicated with me via notes. He didn’t like talking to anyone, so he’d send someone down with a little note, like, “Make sure you get a close-up of the keyboard player in this song.” It was fucking mad. I think he’s slightly sociopathic, actually.

Howard Woffinden, producer: I was dispatched to Minneapolis, where Prince was rehearsing for a tour, to meet with him about a video concept. I sat in the arena watching rehearsals for three days before somebody came and told me, “You should go home now.”

Simon Fields: For “Raspberry Beret,” we filmed a whole video, then Prince got a Japanese animator to do a completely different video and we mashed the two up. He would mess with directors. He would give them the impression that they’d be in charge of the video, then halfway through he’d go, “Thank you,” take what he liked, and edit it himself.

Lisa Coleman: Here’s a good piece of trivia: Pat Smear from Nirvana and Foo Fighters was an extra in “Raspberry Beret.” I met him years later and he said, “I’m such a huge fan, I was in the video.” Look closely and you can spot him, in the front.

Dave Grohl, Nirvana and Foo Fighters: That’s when Pat had dreadlocks all the way down to his butt. He loves Prince, so he put together a white ensemble and goes down to the auditions, at a rehearsal space in Los Angeles. He gets there, and everyone has to do a synchronized dance. Pat can’t dance. So he got cut. They sent him home. He starts walking down the hallway and hears, “Hey you!” He turns around and there’s a big bodyguard standing next to Prince. And Prince whispers in the bodyguard’s ear. The bodyguard says, “You can stay. He likes your hair.” They wanted his hair in the video! 

Howard Woffinden: A few of us traipsed to Prince’s house in LA about 11 a.m. to meet with him about a video. Someone lets us in and we’re sitting in the living room for ages, waiting. Eventually Prince comes in, dressed in silk pajamas, with a blue stiletto on his right foot and a yellow stiletto on his left foot. He sits down, looks at the ceiling a little bit, and we launch into our spiel. He listens politely for a minute or two and says, “Uh, hang on a minute.” He disappears for another 35 minutes or so. Eventually, he wanders back in, and now he’s got the blue stiletto on his left foot and the yellow stiletto on his right foot. He sits down and says, “Now, what were you saying?”

Sharon Oreck: There was a story told at Limelight about an early Prince video. Supposedly, there was a shot where he wanted doves released into the air, but the production manager decided not to work with an animal trainer because it was too expensive, so he bought some doves from a local pet store. When it came time to throw the doves into the air, he literally threw them from the stage, and they were immediately sucked into a giant fan, chopped up, and then sprayed around the room and all over the band. That was one of the first rock video legends.

Corey Glover, singer, Living Colour: I come from a family of short people. I overcompensate constantly, because I am well aware of just how short I am. When I met Prince, I was so happy – he’s 5’ 2”, 5’ 5” with heels on. I walked up behind him and I could feel the smile radiating from my face. When I met Mel Gibson at Saturday Night Live, I was like, Really? I’m taller than Mel Gibson? 

Joe Davola, MTV producer: Under the Cherry Moon was the movie Prince made after Purple Rain, and MTV did a contest with Warner Bros. – the 10,000th person to call in would get a premiere party in their hometown. The phone lines were jammed up in the bigger cities, so a girl in Sheridan, Wyoming got through first. MTV took Prince to Wyoming and did the premiere of Under The Cherry Moon in some bullshit town. Prince was great, a really nice guy, though not effusive. He played live in a Holiday Inn ballroom and his head almost hit the fucking ceiling when he jumped up and down. I wanted to shoot him outside, against the mountains, because it’s beautiful out there, but the studio was trying to limit costs. I think they knew from the previews, this was not gonna be a hit movie. 

Lisa Coleman: We had to take a little crop duster plane to get to Sheridan. We were scared for our lives. There weren’t even seats; it was like sitting on the floor of an army helicopter. We stayed at their fanciest Holiday Inn and played a gig there after the premiere. It was so silly, because they put the band on risers, but the ceiling was only eight feet high. Our heads were right up against it.

Roberta Cruger, MTV director of talent relations: We did a contest for Under the Cherry Moon where the winner got to host the premiere in their hometown and be Prince’s date. The young woman who won was from Sheridan, Wyoming, so that’s where the premiere was. She was interviewed by a magazine and she told them her favorite band was Motley Crue. When the Warner Bros. film people heard that, they wanted to cancel the contest. But Prince was a real gentleman about the whole thing. He picked her up, opened the car door, and gave her a gift: a cross. The girl told me afterwards, “I think he’s shy, like me.” It was very sweet. 

Lisa Coleman: Wendy [Melvoin, from Prince’s band] got in trouble that weekend. Joni Mitchell came to the premiere. We were so excited to spend time with her. After the gig in the Holiday Inn, we went to the bar with Joni and Wendy ordered a beer. Somehow, it got into the local paper, just offhandedly, like, “Wendy Melvoin sips a beer as she talks to Joni Mitchell.” Prince read that, and got really pissed off. He thought it was sinful for Wendy to be drinking a beer. He was worried, like, “What if kids read this and think it’s cool to drink beer?” 

At this point Prince was very caught up in becoming the kind of mainstream star that even grandmas loved, and he felt that this didn’t fit that image. And so he fined Wendy. He docked her pay. It was at least $500. It may have been $1,500.

Rebecca Blake, director: When Prince’s manager called and asked me to direct “Kiss,” the first thing out of my mouth was, “I’d like to speak to Prince first, and I’m not doing it unless I can bring in my own hair, makeup, models and choreographer.” A few minutes later, Prince called me. He was charming. The conversation was brief and there was a lot of giggling on his end. 

I was on a heavy vampire kick — I was into Anne Rice very early — so that’s where the black veil on the dancer’s head comes from. Prince was brilliant in terms of dance and choreography. You could show him something and three seconds later he could do it perfectly. He came to the set with buttons all over his pants. I said, “What’s with the buttons?” He said, “Should have told me you don’t like buttons.” He’s funnier than people know. I’d put him next to a six-foot-tall model and he would give me an expression like, “Are you kidding? Where’s my apple box?” He was the one who decided at the last minute to use Wendy Melvoin in the video. They had great chemistry, and they were funny together. Her facial expressions in that video were perfect.

Lisa Coleman: Wendy and I were living together at the time, and Prince called her and said, “I’m shooting the ‘Kiss’ video today. Why don’t you come down and play guitar?” As it turns out, the stuff with Wendy playing guitar on a stool stole the show. She ended up being more of the focus than the hot female dancer with the see-through scarves. When Prince dances up to Wendy and sings “You got to not talk dirty, baby / If you wanna impress me,” and Wendy smiles and shrugs? You can see that image in your head perfectly, nearly thirty years later. 

Rebecca Blake: Prince would never do anything with anyone unless I was there. He would not talk to anyone but me. No one. I was working with a producer on the “Cream” video, and he said, “I’m gonna tell Prince this and that.” And I said, “No you’re not.” He said, “Yes, I am. I’m gonna talk to Prince.” A few days later he said to me, “You’re right. I’m never talking to him ‘cause he won’t let me.” 

Arsenio Hall, comedian: I was standing in the wings at the [1991] VMA Awards when I saw a girl, and I said, “Who is that?” I I distinctly remember Damon Wayans saying, “Her name is Elizabeth Berkley.”  And I said, “Wow!”  At that same moment, as I said, “Wow!” I saw Prince pass me with no ass in his pants. I remember thinking, And he has hair on his ass. I forget what joke I made about it, but when a man from Minneapolis has no ass in his pants, the jokes kind of write themselves. A week later? A black and white suit with no ass in the pants was delivered to my office, from Prince and his tailor. And I still have it. 

Tim Clawson, head of production, Propaganda Films: I routinely flew to Chanhassen, Minnesota, for meetings with Prince at Paisley Park Studios. We’d get a call from Steve Fargnoli — “Prince has an idea for a video, get Tim to fly there” — and I’d take the red-eye and meet Prince the next day. Prince would tell me half of an idea, then he’d say, “Okay, that’s what I’ve got for now.” Then he’d come back three hours later and tell me more about it. In between, I’d start to work on what he had pitched me, because Prince was the kind of guy who wanted to tell you an idea today and shoot it tomorrow. 

My favorite pitch of his was for a video that never ended up happening. It was for a track from Lovesexy, I can't remember which. But he was describing a scene with him in bed with a girl, and along the side of the bed would be a neon sign that said “Lovesexy.” He said, “We can do that at my house.” I said, “Great. We’ll build the sign on the set and have it transported over. Won't be a problem.” And he goes, “We can do it at my house.” And I remember thinking to myself, Ohhh, I get it: You have a neon sign in your bedroom that says “Lovesexy.” Right.

Janet Jackson, singer: My brother made great videos. So did Prince. I was a huge Prince fan. He was different, his music was different, it was a whole movement: he had this feeling, this group, this family, and everyone had a character within his family. It reminded me a great deal of when I was really young, watching Sly and the Family Stone. That was one of my favorite bands as a little kid. So it brought me back to that feeling, which is very celebratory.