Five movies that influenced Prince's '1999'

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Four movies that influenced Prince's '1999.'
Four movies that influenced Prince's '1999.' Clockwise from upper left: 'The Man Who Saw Tomorrow,' 'Eraserhead,' 'Blade Runner,' 'Quadrophenia.' (Warner Bros./Libra Films/Universal)

Prince didn't just make movies: he was a lifelong movie buff, watching his favorites over and over again. As discussed in The Story of 1999, five films in particular helped shape Prince's vision for the 1999 album, tour, and aesthetic.

Eraserhead (1977)

Roy Bennett, Prince's lighting designer for the 1999 Tour, told The Current's Andrea Swensson that when Prince was making 1999, he repeatedly screened David Lynch's disturbing debut feature.

He would call me over and it would be just he and I in the house doing things — you know, talking about different music and different artists and influences, and where he wanted to go musically and with the shows. It was kind of bonding — a creative bonding, an emotional bonding. We spent a few times watching David Lynch's movie Eraserhead together, just the two of us. The way I look at it now, it was a very surreal experience because it's a bizarre movie. It's engaging but disturbing at the same time. It doesn't really tell a story. It's abstract emotion, and that really influenced me in a way that it started me to realize that you'd never want to be obvious about what you're trying to say. You give enough headroom for people to decide what it is. I don't know if he was actually doing that on purpose, or it just happened to work out that that's what that movie meant to the both of us.

Eraserhead is widely available for online rental or purchase.

Quadrophenia (1979)

A loose adaptation of the Who's 1973 concept album, Quadrophenia helped introduce American audiences to the iconic looks of Britain's competing Mod and Rocker subcultures. The film became a favorite of Prince's, and you can clearly see its influence on the Kid who roared up to First Avenue on his motorcycle in 1984. The Kid's trench coat came first, though, as Prince rocked a long coat in the Dirty Mind era and replaced it with the sparkly purple coat that became a visual signature of his promotional photography and onstage looks for 1999.

Quadrophenia is widely available for online rental or purchase.

The Idolmaker (1980)

You've probably never seen The Idolmaker, but it's a must-watch if you want to appreciate the way Prince's creative vision was evolving in the early '80s. It's a movie about a fictional singer-songwriter who becomes a musical svengali: taking attractive young people and giving them his songs, showing them how to move, and generally shaping their images. Associates remember Prince watching this movie all the time on video, and it sparked him to turn his own personal vision into an entire musical movement that became known as the Minneapolis Sound — starting with his 1999 tourmates, the Time and Vanity 6. Prince must also have admired the Idolmaker's disdain towards record labels: the character fights to control his own music rather than handing his songs over in exchange for a quick buck.

This one's less accessible: it's not available online, so you'll have to buy, rent, or borrow a DVD or Blu-ray. You can find a used copy for about ten bucks.

The Man Who Saw Tomorrow (1981)

Imagine you're a member of Prince's band in the Dirty Mind era. You score a hotel room with free HBO — a nice perk in 1981. You flop on the bed and flip on the TV to see what's playing. Before you know it, you and your bandmates are engrossed by an ominous documentary hosted by a cigar-chomping Orson Welles. It details the predictions of 16th-century astrologer Nostradamus: those that have come true, and those that might come true in the future. The movie ends with an apocalyptic montage dramatizing the globe-spanning war Nostradamus was thought to have predicted for, as The Man Who Saw Tomorrow repeatedly states, 1999.

Bobby Z and other band members have clear memories of exactly that scenario, which directly inspired Prince to write "1999." The science-fictional, vaguely mystical, intimations of sudden and seismic transformation made the song a natural title track for Prince's game-changing album. This one is even harder to track down than The Idolmaker, though various clips are available on YouTube. Once you've watched it, those cheesy special effects will spool back in your brain the next time you hear Prince's party anthem.

Blade Runner (1982)

Ridley Scott's science fiction masterpiece helped shape the aesthetic of the '80s: a hazy, neon-lit future where the gritty mixes with the glossy and where everyone's ludicrously sexy. Sound a little bit like a Prince video? Yep, exactly...and there's Harrison Ford rocking another supercool trench coat.

Photographer Allen Beaulieu, who shot the 1999 jacket photos and other promotional shots for Prince in the early '80s, says Prince pointed to Blade Runner as a touchstone for the costumes and sets he incorporated into his 1999 aesthetic. It's readily available to rent or buy online, and the timing couldn't be better: it's set in Los Angeles circa November 2019.

Blade Runner is widely available for online rental or purchase.

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