The Second Coming
Prince’s lost picture show
by Tony Best
Prince may well be the Orson Welles of funk. Mercurial, obsessive, prolific—legend continues to surround the respective genius of both artists. One notable parallel is their canon of unreleased works, which for decades have been shrouded in mystique and subjected to intense speculation. Prince’s vault of shelved material is rumored to include thousands of randomly recorded tracks, dozens of completed albums, and, much like Welles, a few movies in the can.
The Second Coming, Prince’s first attempt at filmmaking, is among these ill-fated projects. Produced during the final leg of 1982’s Controversy tour, the feature was conceptualized as a documentary concert film meets glam-funk fantasy, filtered through Prince’s unique paisley-and-lace perspective. Long mythologized within Prince fan circles, few details have leaked about this lost film other than its purported similarities to Purple Rain: a high-concept, erotically charged rock opera infused with a surreal ’80s neon motif.
Director and producer Chuck Statler—widely considered as the “godfather of the music video”—was tapped by Prince & Co. to helm The Second Coming and execute the twenty-three-year-old’s creative vision. Statler began his career as a visual artist and commercial producer before revolutionizing pre-MTV promotional videos, lensing stylized short films and documentaries for art rockers Devo, the Cars, and Elvis Costello.
Now thirty years after The Second Coming’s planned release, Statler reflects on the making of the film and his collaboration with pop music’s (then) enfant terrible.
How did your relationship with Prince develop?
I’m almost positive that I met one of his managers, Steven Fargnoli, at Minneapolis’s First Avenue in late 1981. I think it might even have been a Prince show. Someone introduced us at the bar and said, “Steven, this is Chuck Statler and he does videos for Devo.” He said he loved my work and asked if I would be interested in working with Prince on a video project. I said sure—great. That project was the video for “Cool,” the Time’s first single.
After getting the assignment, I went out to this warehouse in Eden Prairie to meet the band. When I arrived, Prince was there—it was the first time I met him. He was showing Jellybean Johnson some kind of riff on the drums, because Jellybean had a hard time keeping it in the pocket. I think Prince did most of the tracks on The Time album anyway. He definitely had a big influence on that first record.
Did he mention your other music video work?
Not that I recall. Very few words were exchanged with him that day, very few. In fact, we did the “Cool” location shoot at a local public school. It was all done in one long day, something like twelve hours. Prince showed up with his assistant, sat down at the back of the classroom, and didn’t say a word. [laughs] Not one thing!
We finished shooting and began editorial, cutting this thing together. We didn’t even have a rough cut yet, and I got word that Prince wants to see the footage. He comes down to the editing bay to watch everything. Even then, the conversation may have been minimal at most. After he left, I got a call from his assistant Jamie saying that he wanted to change one thing. It was so miniscule that it didn’t make any difference in the video, but he had to be able to have some say in what we were doing. But Prince really liked the final results. I must of passed the test in his eyes and that led to working on the concert film.
What was their impetus for shooting the Controversy tour footage?
The initial objective was to create a film for the same reason music videos were done at that time. As a promotional tool. Prince’s management wanted to document the concert for possible home video or television distribution. Because there was some concern in specific concert markets about audience demographics and all that, they felt that a film was an easier alternative for people to experience the live show.
After about three days of meetings and discussions with Prince and his management, I spent a few days on the road watching and blocking the live show for the film shoot. We shot it at the Met Center [in Bloomington, Minnesota] on March 7, 1982. That was a very cold night towards the end of the tour. I’m pretty sure we covered it with five principal cameras—16mm color—and a possible sixth rolling camera for audience shots.
But after screening the footage from the concert, enthusiasm propelled conversations about adding material and seeking theatrical distribution. Steve Rivkin was working with me as an editor at the time. We were cutting the concert shots when Prince came in and got really excited about what he saw. He says, “Wait a minute—maybe we should really expand this and really try to make it a film. Not just a concert movie.”
So his management came back to me and said, “Here’s this situation. Prince wants to do this interstitial material within the concert footage. And it’ll be somewhat autobiographical.” Management’s thinking was that a theatrically distributed film with a semblance of story line could demographically broaden the audience and in particular, specific metro markets. In time, this mixture of concert and dramatic interludes would morph into The Second Coming project.
This sounds thematically similar to Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same (1976).
Certainly not aesthetically, but in structure, yes. I’d have to give the nod to The Song… First off, that project was completed and secondly, the interstitial material looks more theatrical.
Did you have a concept in mind for The Second Coming’s autobiographical/dramatic sequences?
No, I was never asked for my input. Like all Prince projects, it’s kind of…it’s just Prince. Period.
So it’s probably safe to say that star and director didn’t exactly “bond” during production either.
Correct. [laughs] Actually, I can say emphatically that despite all the meetings I had with him, the most conversation occurred during location scouting and him talking about what he wanted to accomplish. Other than that, going as far back as the Time video, there wasn’t much more than a hello.
When did principal photography begin?
After the Controversy tour finished, sometime in late March of 1982, we went to Prince’s father’s house and planned to start the shoot there. But he decided to film at his purple-painted house in Chanhassen—the one before Paisley Park. We’re simultaneously cutting the six camera’s worth of concert footage as well. And there’s all the backstage footage with the band, audience interviews, sound bites. A lot of stuff. I can’t remember how many rolls or hours worth of material we had at this point. Steve Rivkin helmed the editing phase, and I started preparing for the interstitial material.
When we got to Prince’s house, it then became this gruesome drill. The filming went on and on…being the perfectionist and control maestro that he is. We were trying to be as efficient as possible, but it became one thing after another, which delayed the whole process instead of doing quite the opposite. All the shots we talked about and all the camera blocking we did, the storyboards, the pre-production.
We even had some electrical problems at his house. Prince was really inspired by a film at that time, I can’t remember the name of it, but it had a lot of back lighting. He was enamored with that and wanted a lot of back lighting. We pulled everything off the truck, lit everything up, and it still wasn’t enough! So I had more sent in and kept adding light.
According to the screenshots, this is one of the sequences where Prince emerges from a corridor flanked by two lingerie-clad women. Correct?
Yes. Funny enough, his management wasn’t too happy about the lingerie. They came in and said, “You can’t have them dressed like that—we’ll never get this film to fly!” Which in retrospective sounds absurd, but they at the time thought Prince was pushing the boundaries. Now remember this was back in Prince’s bikini and stockings days, so he wanted the women to be in the scenes in lingerie, which they were.
Anyhow, we finally blew out a transformer on a utility pole and the power company was called to come fix it. We were down for a few hours and trying to kill time. I remember sitting outside on his steps and he came out with an acoustic guitar. He was entertaining one of the lingerie ladies [Susan Moonsie of Vanity 6] and started doing this Elvis Presley imitation that would have blown any impersonator out the water. It was spot on. He can be informed by any musician out there and, I believe, replicate it.
The public rarely sees this playful and relaxed side. There is another remarkable shot of him blowing bubblegum bubbles on the set. Was that intended for the film or just a candid aside?
That was actually for inclusion in the film. It started as a boom shot on his white boots with the bandana wrapped around his ankle. Then we boomed straight up; Prince had this duster jacket on, flipped it back and revealed his little black bikini. It continued to come up and ended on his face. Right then he blew a pink Hubba Bubba bubble. He starts chewing the gum, takes it out of his mouth, wraps it around his finger and sticks it back in his mouth.
Now this was late in what felt like a three-day drill, but in reality was probably more in the area of twenty-plus hours of production. After about so many takes I say, “Okay, we got it. Let’s go on to the next shot.” Prince looks at me and says, “No—I’ll tell you when we got it.” Now there might have been some minor rubs before that, but it was at that moment…I said, “Okay—if that’s the way you want it.”
We shot roll after roll after roll on that boom shot. The crew was exhausted and started passing out. So I go over to the management to tell them we’re already in platinum time. We already shot a thousand feet for this shot. [laughs] It was insane, but I realized he was making a statement—“We’ll stop when I decide.” That was definitely a moment there. We did a few shots after that, and I was like, “Prince, you tell me when you got it.” The subsequent takes were less strenuous, about a half a dozen or so. It was costly but money was no object for him. I still don’t think it is! But I have to say, I think he’s easier to work with now, but back in the day he certainly had a reputation as being tough and at times difficult.
You eventually wrap on this hard day’s night of filming. What happened next on the production schedule?
Now I get the house footage back. We had stuff blocked out, so that the following week we were going to shoot another day. It was kind of spread out because we knew the schedule for trying to get a rough cut on the concert footage was going to take place over at least another month.
At some point in the process of posting the concert footage and planning the next sequence of interstitial material, Prince came in and for whatever reason didn’t like what he saw. Then that was it. He pulled the plug and stepped away from The Second Coming. And with everything else, there wasn’t a lot of communication between us.
Was there even an opportunity to assemble a rough cut of the concert and house footage?
No, it never got cut, because we never got to that stage. We were still in the process of cutting the concert at the same time. His management did come back to me several times over the years to discuss the project, but nothing materialized. The film just sat there.
Were you able to speak with Prince directly about possibly salvaging The Second Coming?
About five years ago, I get a call from someone saying, “Prince wants to talk to you.” He gets on the phone and says, “You’re not gonna hold me hostage are you?” [laughs] I told him no, I just want to get paid what was due back then! There was no other issue—I just wanted to get my due. After we settled up, I turned over the Met Center footage to him. Including all the camera originals and work prints.
He was very protective of his image back in the day, a little less today, but still wants to keep everything under lock and key. At the time, he didn’t ask about the dramatic scenes; it was like they didn’t exist. Nothing has been done with it. There’s not a lot there though, because it was just the start of the whole idea.
In fact, I thought the footage of those sequences was lost. I called the film lab we originally used and various post-houses around Minneapolis looking for it. No luck. But a little over a year ago, I did manage to locate it in my vault. I sent him a few letters and never heard anything. So if I see him one day, I’ll let him know it’s safe and secure. Maybe if he sees this interview, he’ll reach out to me. Or sue me—one of the two. [laughs] I technically own the footage but can’t do anything with it due to licensing restrictions.
I did have another conversation with him later on, and if I remember correctly, although I’m not sure, he was concerned about the material being a little lascivious. After he made that comment, I understood he’s at a different place now being a Jehovah’s Witness. He distances himself from the older, more risqué work.
The idea of the film languishing in his archive is disheartening, given his reputation for shelving projects indefinitely. Maybe he’ll reconsider.
I had actually hoped that when he got it, he would try to do something with it. Put it together. I don’t think there’s any kind of document from that timeframe. Not of that professional grade quality from the Controversy tour. Again, it’s always bothersome when you make this investment and for one reason or the other the plug gets pulled.
There were excellent parts of the footage, namely his stage performance. Even though he was in his bikini and trench coat. Not to mention the antics with his guitar, the miming of certain sexual behaviors. Now, I as an artist have complete respect and admiration for the fact that he really is an artist. Not only with his musicianship but the way he approaches things and perceives things. He does have his own designs and concepts about it.
Purple Rain undoubtedly raised the bar for rock films and romanticized the image of Black musicians on the silver screen. Had The Second Coming been completed and released on schedule, would it have a similar cultural impact?
There’s little question in my mind that The Second Coming would have enjoyed commercial success. I know it’s easy to say now, but the Artist and his music was/is too compelling and powerful. His music is undeniable, and the odds are much better that it would have garnered a large audience. It was the right idea at that point in time. It would have had a reach well beyond what his touring could provide. It’s difficult for me to estimate its critical appeal because the premature abandonment left a large portion of production and the project unfinished and unrealized. It had potential. But it’s just something that’s in his vault, and that’s as far as it will ever go, most likely.
Chuck Statler Selected Videography
The Time “Cool” (1981)
Devo “Whip It” (1980)
America “You Can Do Magic” (1982)
The Cars “Panorama” (1980)
Madness “One Step Beyond” (1979)
Nick Lowe “Cruel to Be Kind” (1979)
J. Geils Band “Come Back” (1980)
Elvis Costello “Let Them All Talk” (1983)
Graham Parker “Local Girls” (1979)