|Photo courtesy of Tonya Giddens
Ten minutes before Jerome Benton called me, he got an alert on his phone from Pinterest, which prompted him to look through a collection of pictures of Prince.
"I'm like, 'Wow, he's really gone,'" Benton later told me. "And I go through that. Because we talked and we didn't talk. So I'm still in that mode. ... But when I see the pictures, I'm like, 'Aw, he's not here.'"
Throughout our conversation, Benton shared fond memories of Prince, whom he called a friend, mentor and brother. Among all the people I've interviewed for my book, I think Benton has known Prince the longest. They grew up on the North Side of Minneapolis, and Prince recruited Benton for The Time and The Family bands. Benton also appeared in Prince's films Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge.
I was especially interested in Benton's take on the latter movie, in which Prince explores the conflict between good and evil, as well as the sacred and profane. In my opinion, it is one of the artist's most important spiritual statements.
"I wasn't thinking about the message [of the film]," Benton said. "I was thinking about working with my fellas and trying to do the best job that we could do."
That makes sense. One of the things I've learned talking to people who worked with Prince is that, often times, they weren't thinking about the greater meaning behind Prince's creative choices; they were just trying to do their jobs. For example, I also like to ask about Prince's conversations with God onstage during the Purple Rain tour. People like Karen Krattinger, who worked as the production coordinator for the tour, were too busy "tied to a telephone ... advancing for the next project, advancing for what he wanted to happen after the show" to analyze Prince's performance.
But of course there were some people who engaged Prince spiritually during that time--Craig Rice, for example--and others who are interested in thinking through Prince's spiritual journey with me in hindsight. So I've just had to learn that I can't always predict which category my subject will fall into ahead of our interview.
Benton did have a perspective on Prince's spirituality, and I will share that in my book. I also asked him about Prince's decision to change the ending of Under the Cherry Moon, which may or may not have been a moral or spiritual decision. I also asked him what he thought about Prince's beliefs as a Jehovah's Witness, and whether or not he was surprised by Prince's conversion to the religion.
What I'm happy to share here is Benton's touching thoughts on the Under the Cherry Moon era and a song from the soundtrack that has great meaning for him: "Venus de Milo."
"That was a very special time in my life that I shared with Prince when we spent almost a year of production and filming," Benton said. "The thing that gets me ... is what I feel, what I go through when I hear ['Venus de Milo']. ... It's just emotional to me. I tear up immediately."
Benton also expressed gratitude for Prince's hand in shaping his professional life.
"Who would've thought, 38 years later, that somebody made a career out of holding a mirror up in front of somebody and talking shit to them," he said of his classic role in The Time.
A highlight for me during our chat was Benton's mention of The Funk Music Hall of Fame and Exhibition Center in Dayton, Ohio (an hour away from me), which will have its grand opening on Feb. 16. My hope is that he will visit soon.
Benton's hope is that he and his dear friend will reunite one day. "Maybe we'll do Under the Cherry Moon 2 in Heaven," he said. "And get a second [Raspberry Award]."
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