Prince's semi-autobiographical film, Purple Rain, hit theaters 30 years ago this weekend, presenting the world with a bold new model for the contemporary pop artist. NPR television critic Eric Deggans remembers the moment vividly. Hear his conversation with special correspondent Michele Norris above, and read his personal essay on the movie below.
Little compares to that magic moment when you sit down in a movie theater and watch a film that seems as if it's telling your story. That happened to me three decades ago. The film was Prince's pop-funk masterpiece, Purple Rain.
The movie and its soundtrack were milestones for music and media: the christening of Prince as a pop star and the explosion of his uniquely multicultural, genre-bending, sex-drenched form of funky sonic genius.
But for me, nothing before had so fully captured what it was like to perform in a band.
I was a young drummer starting a band with classmates at Indiana University, which would eventually get a short stint as Motown recording artists, playing throughout the Midwest and even in Japan. Watching Purple Rain, before all that would happen, felt a bit like seeing an autobiography, set to the baddest music around.
A band is essentially a marriage with three or four or eight or ten people. It requires you to spend outlandish amounts of time together, sweating to make the kind of art that might move a few hearts and allow you to earn a living besides.
For all its flaws — from the stilted, amateurish acting to clumsy direction and clunky lines — Purple Rain nailed that feeling. As Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman begged Prince to let the band play one of their songs, I relived a thousand other band fights fueled by insecurity, fatigue and immaturity.
Seeing them eventually work it out and blow the roof off of the First Avenue club felt like a special message: You can do this, too.
Purple Rain was special to the world for many other reasons. At a time before YouTube, social media or the World Wide Web, few artists had the power to create multimedia experiences on multiple platforms to speak directly to fans.
Prince, who cultivated a mystique by giving few interviews and revealing little about his life or work, let fans into a fictionalized version of his history on the big screen. And the film, juiced by career-making turns from slick lothario Morris Day and his band The Time, gave Prince-heads a super-sized vision of their idol, tooling around Minneapolis with a tricked-out motorcycle and fiercely ruffled shirts.
Not many years before, the music world was seriously segregated. MTV had to be shamed into playing Michael Jackson videos and the "disco sucks" movement too often felt like a thinly veiled way of saying, "black and brown and gay people suck."
But Prince offered a musical world that put genres in a blender. "Let's Go Crazy" married a bouncy '50s-style rock rhythm to a percolating, '80s pop funk beat. "Purple Rain" was a soulful ballad fired up by incendiary guitar solos. "When Doves Cry" was a percussive marvel held together by a spastic drum machine groove and soaring, Prince-ian vocals.
Sitting in an Indiana theater packed with kids my age, I saw Purple Rain as a validation of the musical world I was already seeking out: a glorious, paisley-drenched descendant of Sly & the Family Stone by way of James Brown and Bill Haley's Comets.
Film purists will insist the movie itself is pure shlock. The female lead, Patricia "Appolonia" Kotero, emotes like she learned her lines that morning. Only the masterful Clarence Williams III — the Mod Squad veteran who gives an emotional performance as Prince's abusive father — seemed to have any real acting chops at all.
But when you're on the tip of a cultural revolution, little of that matters. And looking back over 30 years, it's obvious that Purple Rain became a generational manifesto, while providing the largest megaphone yet for one of the greatest geniuses in pop music.
United Nations experts said they had recovered a second so-called black box at the crash site of Air Algerie flight AH5017 that went down in the desert in southern Mali.
Reuters says that "initial evidence taken from the remote crash site indicates that the aircraft broke apart when it smashed to the ground early on Thursday morning, making an attack appear unlikely."
The plane was en route from Ouagadougou, the capital of the West African nation of Burkina Faso, to Algiers when it suddenly disappeared from radar.
The death toll of 118 — 112 passengers and six crew — includes 54 French citizens. The Guardian reports that ten members of the same French family were among the victims.
The first of the data recorders has already been found and analyzed, French President Francois Hollande said on Friday.
The New York Times says:
"The wreckage of Flight 5017 was found by an international search team just before nightfall on Thursday in an isolated area, about 60 miles south of the town of Gao in eastern Mali. Soldiers from Burkina Faso, who were the first to arrive on the scene, said they had found several bodies among the burned-out hull of the plane, a Boeing MD-83."
"'We think the aircraft crashed for reasons linked to the weather conditions,' Bernard Cazeneuve, the French interior minister, said in an interview on the French radio station RTL."
What happened in technology this week, you ask? Here's a roundup of the tech stories reported by NPR and others since you last checked in.
Hack The Hood: Twitter this week followed Google, Facebook and Yahoo in releasing numbers on the makeup of its workforce. And like those tech giants, the numbers show that the 140-character social media company is largely male and white. To counter that trend, NPR's Aarti Shahani reports, a growing number of nonprofits are popping up next door to Silicon Valley to help young blacks and Latinos break into the industry.
Our Digital Afterlives: What happens to our archived Facebook messages, old email chains and other digital crumbs after we log off this earth? NPR's Molly Roberts reports that, if adopted by the states, a model law would give the executor of your estate access to your online assets and online financial accounts.
A Workout At Work: This week's innovation pick is the Cubii, which encourages you to exercise while seated at your desk. As NPR's Allie Caren reports, this small elliptical-style device could ease your worries that a sedentary existence will shorten your life.
The Big Conversation
Net Neutrality Deluge: After a five-month period, the Federal Communications Commission received more than 1 million comments on its proposal to let Internet providers charge content providers extra fees to deliver faster service. But, as NPR's Elise Hu reports, analysts say the comments may not matter much in the end.
People have come up with a variety of metaphors to describe net neutrality, which can be a complicated concept to explain. The most common one is that the Internet would be treated like a highway with fast and slow lanes. But comparing it to a shower?
Wall Street Journal: Google's New Moonshot Project: the Human Body
The company will conduct a baseline study of healthy people, collecting anonymous genetic and molecular information. The aim is to help researchers find patterns that could head off heart disease, cancer and other killers.
Some analysts predict hundreds of millions of smartwatches will be sold by 2018; news outlets are already at work trying to figure out how to squeeze headlines onto smaller, wrist-size screens.
Apple prides itself on the simplicity of its devices, so it's a little surprising that the next version of its mobile operating system will include an instructional app, called Tips.
Most of what we know — or think we know — about how kids learn comes from classroom practice and behavioral psychology. Now, neuroscientists are adding to and qualifying that store of knowledge by studying the brain itself. The latest example: new research in the journal Developmental Science suggests a famous phenomenon known as the "fourth-grade shift" isn't so clear-cut.
"The theory of the fourth-grade shift had been based on behavioral data," says the lead author of the study, Donna Coch. She heads the Reading Brains Lab at Dartmouth College.
The assumption teachers make: "In a nutshell," Coch says, "by fourth grade you stop learning to read and start reading to learn. We're done teaching the basic skills in third grade, and you go use them starting in the fourth."
But, Coch's team found, that assumption may not be true. The study involved 96 participants, divided among third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders as well as college students. All average readers, the subjects wore noninvasive electrode caps that could swiftly pick up electrical activity in the brain.
They were shown strings of letters/symbols that fell into four different categories: words ("bed"); pseudo-words ("bem"); strings of letters ("mbe") and finally, strings of meaningless symbols (@#*). The researchers then observed the subjects' brains as they reacted, within milliseconds, to each kind of stimulus.
The children in the study handled the first three categories roughly as well as the college students, meaning their brains responded at a speed that suggested their word processing was automatic. The difference came with the fourth category, meaningless symbols. As late as fifth grade, children needed to use their conscious minds to decide whether the symbols were a word.
The study suggests there is nothing so neat as a fourth-grade shift. It found that third-graders exhibit some signs of automatic word processing while fifth-graders are still processing words differently from adults.
Why is this important? "From my perspective, this concept of automaticity is key to learning to read," says Coch. "If you're not automatic, you're using a lot of effort to decode and understand individual words, meaning you have fewer resources for comprehension."
Coch's team also administered a written test, covering the same set of real words, fake words, and symbol strings. This task was designed to test the participants' conscious word processing, a much slower procedure.
Interestingly, most of the 96 participants got a nearly perfect score on the written test, showing that their conscious brains knew the difference between words and non-words. Future research will no doubt try to pinpoint when that process becomes automatic ... research that could change the way we teach reading in the higher grades.