Director: Elliot Riddle
Format: DVD (all regions, NTSC, 135 min.)
Release date: July 8, 2014
From hits like Purple Rain to near disasters following a name change to an unpronounceable symbol, music risk-taker Prince has surprised fans, the music industry, and the entire world with his stunts. Despite heavy setbacks, such as album failures that left him on the verge of bankruptcy and a controlling contract from Warner Bros., Prince never ceased doing what he loved most: making music. Slave Trade: How Prince Re-Made the Music Business is a documentary that takes viewers back to the late ‘70s, highlighting all the twists and turns of Prince’s career through the present day. The film focuses on the artist’s strong disagreement with his record label, Warner Bros., and how his oppression from their contract drove him to lead a revolution of the music business. Along with commentary from former band players from New Power Generation, ex-Warner execs, and music historians (Alan Leeds, Michael B., Sonny T., Jason Draper, Joe Levy, etc.), Slave Trade includes wonderful clips, images, and videos drawn from Prince’s entire career to inform the viewer at the highest capacity.
Prince has always been a daring character, and the film shows him pushing boundaries at every opportunity. True to his style, Prince recognized that his label, Warner Bros., was paying other artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson more than him, so he demanded change. After expressing how he deserved to have a $100 million contract that exceeded those of his competitors, Warner Bros. took the bait and saw this as a way to trap the artist by requiring him to sell 5 million copies of each of his next four albums. Prince was up to the challenge, releasing the commercial hit Diamonds and Pearls, but unfortunately fell short on his next project, Love Symbols, selling only 1 million units. Still, the artist’s stubborn attitude saved him from disaster as he took matters into his own hands and went on an intimate tour of the U.S. to promote Love Symbols. Little success followed, but still Prince kept producing new music, the crux of his problem.
As the new decade approached and gangster rap dominated the music scene, Prince never faltered and produced yet another album through a side project Gold Nigga, trying to incorporate this new sound. Warner Bros. refused to market the album, claiming the music was bad. Not surprisingly for Prince, he directly violated his contract by promoting the album on his own through telephone calls and booths at his concert. Warner Bros. was furious and in a move of final retaliation, Prince changed his name to the hieroglyph from Love Symbols, severing his ties with Warner Bros. and the “corporate entity” of Prince. Rock bottom was on the horizon, but still “the artist formerly known as Prince” made music, releasing the single “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” without any corporate help, just private support. Warner Bros. execs sat back and were ready to laugh at the destruction of his career, but were promptly slapped in the face with surprise when “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” became a worldwide hit. With renewed confidence, the artist pushed the envelope farther than ever before when he proposed the idea of releasing a “Prince” album and a “Love Symbol hieroglyph” album on the same day to see which one fans would buy; the old Prince or the new Prince. In perhaps a wise choice from the label, the idea was shot down and from that point on in 1995, the artist formerly known as Prince began to appear in pubic with the word “slave” scrawled across his face; that is, a slave to the music business.
With tensions at an all-time high between artist and label, The Gold Experience in 1995 became the last album released under the contract. While the album was musically impressive, even more so than Diamonds and Pearls, both Warner Bros. and Prince suffered losses due to the hatred between employee and employer that negatively influenced the public. Finally free from his corporate chains, Prince began to promote himself, reaping all the benefits of his shows with the New Power Generation. Prince really began to turn the tides of the music business when he started selling his latest compilation of songs, Crystal Ball, online and direct to his customers. From then on, he began to favor new industry models, supporting Napster and the like. Prince ebbed away for some years but burst back onto the scene on the 2004 Grammy stage with the queen of R&B herself, Beyoncé. Fans realized how much they missed the eccentric guitarist/vocalist and rushed to purchase Musicology, which sold 85 million copies, marking his best success yet. Three years later he was on another world stage, performing at the Super Bowl and once again becoming a household name. Slave Trade concludes with scenes of Prince working on his project with the up-and-coming girl group, 3rdEyeGirl (Plectrumelectrum, released in September 2014).
Before this documentary, I had no knowledge of Prince or his music. All I knew was that he was a great guitarist, wore makeup, and my mother loved him. So, as a total newcomer to his career, watching Slave Trade was like an atomic bomb of information about this legend. My mouth was continuously dropping open in surprise and disbelief at all the risky moves Prince made, and kept making, even when things were turning sour. I am astounded by his career and his relentless passion for making music that makes him proud, not what will sell. After a career spanning nearly 30 years, Prince clearly hasn’t disappeared from the scene, recently performing on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, one of the most highly rated talk shows of today. Slave Trade was a wonderful glimpse into the chaotic revolution of music led by Prince. Despite some technical difficulties with the film itself (the synchronization of the commentators was off the entire time), the wealth of information and opinions of this artist’s ballsy career made it extremely worthwhile. Slave Trade is an informative documentary recommended for avid fans of Prince or total newbies, as well as those studying the music business.
Reviewed by Briana Stewart