Prince once said, “Art is about building a new foundation, not just laying something on top of what’s already there.” This was always his aim when approaching his work. He pioneered new studio techniques while maintaining the mantra, “technology is cool, but you’ve got to use it as opposed to it using you,” and he made a character of himself through the expansive movies that ran alongside his music.
However, he might have dug his own foundations, but he was using the building blocks of inspiration all the same. One pivotal influence on the edifice of art that he went on to construct was his favourite film. The 1980 musical drama The Idolmaker had a profound effect on the output that followed from the little ‘Purple One’.
The film was based on the life and times of rock promoter and producer Bob Marcucci, who discovered a string of prominent acts, including Frankie Avalon and Fabian. The crux of Marcucci’s marketing style was to ensure that you knew who a Marcucci act was. He drummed up his sense of a Svengali aura to try to generate a wind of hysteria around those he worked with. However, the promotional line was blurred, and you wondered whether he was a puppet master of the industry, or a man tangled up in his own narcissism.
Refrains like “Everything you do up there is me, every note you sing is me!” might have an eerie air of recognition to them while you watch, but in truth, the film isn’t what you’d call a masterpiece. For Prince, it was more so the concept that he found himself enamoured with. He pored over it endlessly with multiple viewings.
Thus, Price set about building something new with it and blurring the lines of reality. He would, in a roundabout way, become a real-life Marcucci. As Dez Dickerson, who watched the film with him, said, “When he had an idea, he wouldn’t let go until he did it.” Inspired by the film, the monomaniacal creative perfectionism of Prince soon kicked in and he would craft his own Marcucci down to a tee.
So, Prince came up with a name: Jamie Starr. This sleazy character was as over the top as the cinematic depiction of Marcucci. With blacked-out wrap-around shades, he’d be photographed reclining into a stack of cash with his latest protégé, Morris Day. The implication was to lend the overblown pitch of The Idolmaker and make Morris Day a phenomenon akin to David Bowie’s own decree: “I’m an instant star. Just add water.”
Prince being Prince, he wasn’t going to stop at a mere photoshoot—he wanted to weave this fictional character into reality. If you were around Prince while he was inhabiting this managerial mastermind, then you had to refer to him as Jamie Starr. On paperwork and forms, he was Jamie Starr. In fact, for all intents and purposes, Jamie Starr was a real music promoter (he just so happened to be a megastar on the side).
Nevertheless, this wasn’t some manic method acting gone awry from Prince. He achieved what he wanted to with the role, as Dickerson explains, “At the end of the day Jamie Starr was a creation of people’s imaginations. They believed what they wanted to believe.”
In the end, this same notion of playing with the industry and allowing people’s own corroborations to come to fore formed a central backbone to Purple Rain and other projects that followed. Behind it all, was Prince’s own little philosophical foreshadowing of art and reality and an obscure commentary of blur that promotion can create. While that might remain hard for us to wrap our heads around, the one thing that can be declared with ease and clarity is that it is all so utterly Prince.