Spike Lee: "You Couldn't Make A Movie Of Prince's Life"
Spike Lee presides over Purple People party in Brooklyn for Prince's Born Day this past Saturday (photo courtesy of Metro)
The passing of Prince's on the morning of Thursday, April 21st 2016 inspired many to seek solace in the instantaneous sense of community created by sharing his music. But perhaps nobody has done more to keep the purple spirit alive in these streets than director Spike Lee. That evening, Lee--our great cinematic interpreter of black music, and a Prince collaborator on at least two major projects--turned the streets in front of the Brooklyn offices of his 40 Acres & A Mule production company into an all-Prince block party that served as a cathartic release for New York--and planet earth. Broadcast live to the world via CNN, the tribute became a spontaneous, collective expression of joy and pain that has previously attended only the election of a Black president. That recognition of his transition was bookended by a raucous celebration of Prince's birth that Spike organized in Bed-Stuy's Restoration Plaza this past Saturday; the Purple People Party.
For giving a public focus and outlet to our emotion, New Yorkers and Prince fans worldwide owe Spike a great debt. Yet, his work in preserving and carrying on Prince's legacy may be just beginning. During his preparations for a Red Bull Music Academy talk with Nelson George--which included a screening of his short film for Prince's "Money Don't Matter 2 Night"--Spike gave generously of his time to speak with Okayplayer about his work with the Purple One and the highs and lows of that first weekend after his transition, when the NYPD stood back to watch people dance to the music of Prince in the middle of the street at Spike's invitation, just up the block from the world's most congested intersection at Flatbush and Atlantic. Maybe most compelling of all, Spike shares his vision of telling Prince's story in a 10-part documentary series. Read on to get all that and more in the first of our #PrinceDay exclusives and tributes. Come share a song and a Prince story with us. We're here all day.
Okayplayer: Prince has been such a key part in certain films of yours. In Girl 6, most obviously, Prince's music is almost a character in the story. How exactly do you go about casting the music of Prince in your film?
Spike Lee: Well, music is very important in all my films whether as score, performance or a record. And I tried to have great music in all my films and you know, Stevie Wonder did all the music for Jungle Fever... He Got Game was all Aaron Copland and Public Enemy. And, with this script Girl 6 I just felt that Prince's music was the perfect fit and he was gracious enough to contribute original music. You know he wrote the title song “Girl 6” and then he said: "Spike, anything in my catalogue, you can use," so he was very, very, very, very, giving. You know, he would--I mean this has all been documented, you know--he gave away a lot of hits. A lot of artists, you recorded his songs; he had hits and he just gave them away for people to record them. He was very, very gracious and giving.
OKP: You also recently shared online the short film that you did for his song “Money Don’t Matter 2night” I wonder if you could tell us how that came together?
Spike: Well the Diamonds and Pearls album was coming out and he called me up and said "I want you to do this song, ‘Money Don't Matter 2 Night’." So it's something where he said "I'll send you the song.” Whatever the song he was gonna send-- like that, I was going to do it! And I said, Okay, what's next? And he said "Oh there's one more thing...I'm not in it." [laughs]. But later on, they cut a version where they put him in it. I didn't even know that until I saw it on the internet after he made his transition...
OKP: Wow. When you work with a musician who is such an auteur in their own right, and it's a meeting of two artists...does that affect the way you approach your directing? Or do you just kind of bring what you would normally bring to the table?
Spike: No, I mean if, if he didn't have the belief in my ability, he would've never called me out of the blue, so that wasn't a problem. There was no problems. In fact, he didn’t need to give me notes, you know? He said "Love it" and they just put it out. But, since he wasn't in it, I just had to go with, with using a lot of stock footage, and the main story of this family, a black family in Bed-Stuy that you see in the piece. They're on welfare and they're just getting by on peanut butter and welfare cheese, so, you know this was made during those pressure days of the 1980s...and I forgot I put Trump in it, too! [laughing].
OKP: Prophetic, unfortunately.
Spike: Mm-hm. But I loved that album, and I was just honored that he called me up to do that with that piece.
OKP: You mentioned Stevie Wonder, and I think that's a very telling comparison because Stevie, Michael Jackson and Prince are in some ways...well, there's very few people who have attained that level in music.
Spike: They're all brothers. They all love each other, support each other, and I'm very fortunate. Again, I'm blessed to work with all three. With Stevie, Michael Jackson, and Prince. So, that's a blessing. That’s a blessing, that's a blessing, that's a blessing!
OKP: which leads me to a whole host of questions...just out of curiosity and as a fan. Um, we all remember you and DJ Spinna collaborated on a Michael Jackson in the park event in memory of his passing...
Spike: We have something in store for Prince's birthday, too...
OKP: Okay, that was my next question. You're giving me hope.
Spike: That's the most I can give you right now. But it's gonna be a beautiful night. [It was. there are pictures to prove it.-ed.]
OKP: We’ll leave that aside. But I guess I always wanted to get you know, this tribute that you did in front of 40 Acres & A Mule the night we found about Prince's passing...I just caught the end myself...
Spike: What? you didn't hear “Purple Rain” at the end? The 20-minute version. The last 20 minutes was 20 minutes of "Purple Rain"...
OKP: Just the very end, but even after the music cut, the vibe on the street...I mean we haven't seen a spontaneous outpouring like that, maybe since Obama's election night. Brooklyn came out, it was a real moment of coming together. I just wonder what was your perspective kind of being at the center of it. How did it feel?
Spike: Well, I mean, I think everybody wanted to do something about it. I was just the one who had the means and the ways. I was in class at NYU--my grad film class--and my phone started blowing up. We had to call to find out. This started the trepidation, but I called one person and when they picked up the phone, that person was crying. So I knew it was true.
So the class starts at 2pm. We screened Purple Rain. And then I had my office locked because we had to find a DJ Spinna--he was on a plane to London so he couldn't do it. But--thank God!--J.Period came in and he ran and got the speakers, and had to talk to the NYPD. I want to give a shout out to the NYPD, because we had really...they closed down the street for us, in front of 40 Acres. I went from 8pm -10:30pm, at 10:00 they showed up and we were like "Woah, woah, woah! Nah, nah, nah, keep it going." The NYPD let us go for another half an hour. So they too--even NYPD--was swept up in this whole lovefest of Prince. I've been--I mean I did a lot of parties! But, that will go down as one of the epic, epic parties. Not just for me, just in general.
Spike: There were about 5,000 people there. It was an insane and luck caught up to me by it being Anderson Cooper you know, doing us a solid. You know, live on CNN, around the world, and Brooklyn never looks as good as that, man. It was like, you know, spread love is the Brooklyn way. That's why we do it, and not to say that we have (laughing) the sole claim on love for Prince, he was loved by people around the world. But it was really, a really a special night in Brooklyn.
Here's the thing. People...I just felt that like myself, I knew what to do that night. This was gonna have to be a party. It was good. People, you know, I can't speak for anybody else, but for me, I did not want to mourn that night. I didn't want to cry. I wanted it to be joyous, singing and dancing. So, his death really hit me that weekend. I made a mistake of playing "Sometimes it snows April." Oh man, that was the wrong song to play!
That did it. That was done for the rest of the day. And I was torturing myself because I had that on repeat [laughing] that's ... Look, I understood that death is just a transition, but psychologically, I didn't really deal with it until that moment.
Actually, I wanted to ... I just want to, you know, remember the good times his music brought me. Throughout the years even before I met him. You know, when I was back in Morehouse College, shit. “Soft & Wet” [laughing]...“Do Me Baby!”
OKP: To my mind that begs a bigger question. We also spoke with Alan Leeds (Prince and James Brown’s tour manager) about his tribute to Prince...I know that you guys met when you were attached to the James Brown biopic, which unfortunately never came to be. I think, in my personal opinion--well, the Spike Lee James Brown biopic has not yet come to be, which in my mind is a loss. But putting those pieces together...Prince...Alan Leeds...Spike Lee...biopic... What are the chances that that could come together?
Spike: You can't do that again. Here's the thing. You can't do some stories a second time. You're talking about, now, into films. You can't do Muhammad Ali over, you can't do Jackie Robinson over, and you can't do James Brown over. You know?
OKP: I respect you for that. But I guess what I'm getting at is...might we have another shot in telling Prince's story? If it's not too soon to ask that question...
Spike: Oh, people ask me that left and right. You know, but here's the thing. I'm going to I'm not gonna reach out to the family right now. It's way too soon. Everybody and their mother is calling the estate to talk to Prince's sister and siblings about stuff. You know, trying to make deals and whatnot. I can wait, but I would love to do it. And I think that with him, it would have to be like a 10-part series. You just can't do that...legacy in two hours. You can't do it. It would be injustice. It would have to be like a 10-part series.
OKP: I guess that answers one of my questions. Because you know, what struck me about the James Brown situation, which I would envision it as almost as companion piece to Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali's story…
Spike: Wait, now! Are we talking a documentary or a movie?
OKP: I'm talking about a movie.
Spike: Oh. Ah. AH. [laughs].
Spike: [more laughter] Nah. I'm talking about a documentary!
Spike: Couldn't do it. I would not--not that I've been asked- I could not do a movie on Michael Jackson. Couldn't do it. Prince? That's the same thing.
OKP: Couldn't do it?
Spike: I can’t do a movie on a Prince. Who's gonna play Michael, who's gonna play Prince? So for me, if I would do something, it would be in a documentary form. Not as a narrative film.
Still, I've done 2/3 of my trilogy. Bad 25. We just finished our Journey from Motown to Off the Wall: Michael Jackson. My next project, you know, musically, I hope it would be Thriller. And that would complete my trilogy; those are the three monumental joints that Michael and Quincy [Jones] did together.
OKP: You've said in interviews something to the effect that a movie like Malcolm X, with the studio system the way it is today, you just couldn't make it now. Is there...is it just because nobody could play Prince or is it also because with the film industry that we have, there's just not a path to really develop something that would do him justice?
Spike: I think a studio would make...they'd make a PR film. I think a studio would make a film a narrative of Prince, which is not what I would like to do. To me, if I was going to try to justice to his life...for me it has to be a documentary, not as a narrative. You couldn’t make Prince’s life into a movie.