Prince “Documentary” on Reelz: What I Learned

With the anniversary of Prince’s death approaching, there will be no shortage of articles, commentaries, events, and television segments about these events— for better or for worse. Among these is a “documentary” program that will air on the Reelz network on April 16.

About a month ago I was approached about appearing in this show. As many are aware, I and Laura Tiebert recently released our book The Rise of Prince: 1958–1988. This prompted the interest of the producers, who said they were exploring themes that very much tracked those of the book. The producer I spoke to seemed friendly and thoughtful, and he indicated that the project would be journalistically rigorous.

Following my initial discussion with him, a second call occurred, this one with a second producer also on the line. Her questions to me revealed an entirely different focus. First, she spoke in laudatory terms about a recent CNN documentary that had engaged in speculation about Prince’s death, and about who might be to “blame.” She then asked me whether I thought Prince’s death was accidental.

At that point, I of course developed profound concerns about the project. More to the point, I became enraged.

“You’ve got two minutes to convince me this project is responsible,” I said, my voice making my anger clear.

She demurred, and the call soon ended. About 10 minutes later, I sent an email to the original producer I had spoken to and said I would not be participating.

He sought to initiate another phone call; when I asked him what he wanted to discuss, he sent an apologetic email saying that the call had gone in an unexpected direction and assuring me that the questions didn’t reflect the actual direction of the project.

I told him that I did not hold any of this against him. But ultimately, the whole experience felt almost traumatizing.

I spoke in the coming days about this to my wife. She empathized with my feelings.

“It’s not right to make a spectacle of someone’s death,” she said. This turned out to be a very succinct and accurate reflection of my emotions around the incident.

I believe that to engage in conspiracy theories about Prince’s death largely amounts to an effort to spin entertainment out tragedy. People who try to conjure up stories that have no evidentiary support are being irresponsible at best. I hope that the Reelz show does not end up doing that. I do have some hope, based on my interactions with the original producer, that the show will not be as problematic as his co-producer’s questions implied.

And yet, even if it does not lapse into unfortunate speculations about murder or suicide — or whatever was being implied by her questions — the description of the show does not otherwise give us great cause for optimism. Here is part of the description:

“After the years of dancing and touring took their toll, Prince was left with only himself, looking into the mirror, and no one there to help him. Prince’s whole life was one long cry for help, and nobody was really listening.”

The problem with this statement — one of them, at least — is that certainly some people were listening, and were trying to help. I’m not sure how the show’s description squares with the fact that a medical intervention to help Prince was in motion shortly before his passing.

The reasons why Prince was alone on the night of April 20, 2016 are complicated. Here is part of how Laura and I tried to explore this issue in our book:

And of course there are other paradoxes of his last months, including the most central one: why had this happened? How can it be that Prince was allowed to erect a facade of robust health and sunny optimism in the last weeks of his life, when so clearly help was needed?

The answer may ultimately lie in Prince’s own psychology, rather than some blameworthy failure to act by others. “If you were to stand up to him, he was the type that could easily shut you out,” noted Samantha McCaroll-Hyne, a Minneapolis-based blogger who regularly attended events at Paisley Park and frequently observed Prince at close quarters. “I believe it’s foolish to think that anyone else is responsible for his actions.”[i]

That’s just a starting point of the discussion, and by repeating Samantha’s quote from the book, we are just providing one person’s perspective, as opposed to distilling the entire issue down to one quote. But I do think her sentiments largely underscore my concerns with the Reelz show description. The most journalists can do is to probe into these questions, and try to explore them sensitively and responsibly. Answering them definitively is not possible.

As a biographer, by necessity I need to retain a measure of objectivity. But part of what angered me about my interactions around the Reelz program was this: I am also a fan. I am informed by protective and sympathetic feelings towards the artist we will forever know as Prince.

Alex Hahn is the author, together with Laura Tiebert, of The Rise of Prince: 1958–1988.

[i] Author email interviews with Samantha McCaroll-Hyne, October 2016.