Prince’s Search for ‘The Grand Progression’
If there was one perfect song within the thousands waiting inside Prince’s legendary vault that could provide comfort and solace in the days after after his untimely death, it is “The Grand Progression.” In one of the verses, Prince gently sings, “If I died yesterday / It's OK.” And just as you’re about to cry purple tears all over your pillow, the chorus kicks in, “And darling, it seems I have found the grand progression / Whenever I'm in your arms.” The song itself is one of Prince’s most epic and beautiful ballads. Its story is equally legendary.
According to PrinceVault, the song was originally tracked for inclusion in the Graffiti Bridge film. Its theme played a central role in the original script and the song was included in the soundtrack’s original sequence. The title referred to a grand progression of 17 guitar chords, each one originating from A-flat, that would make the magical namesake bridge in the film appear. In the book, Prince: The Man and His Music, author Matt Thorne compares Prince's concept of a grand progression to Pythagoras' harmonic scale, which only further alludes to the musical genius that fueled his best work.
Despite remaining officially unreleased (in the film, the song was eventually replaced by “Still Would Stand All Time”), “The Grand Progression” is notable as one of Prince’s most intimate and personal ballads. Throughout his life, Prince viewed both music and sex as gateways to God; so the grand progression is established as something that could be achieved either with a guitar or with a lover, two objects of his affection that were rarely not in his arms. One could interpret the “progression” he sings about as an ascension into heaven where the body is jettisoned for eternal light and glory. While other Prince tracks were more devout in their praise of the Almighty, such as “God” and “The Cross”, “The Grand Progression” casts a shadow of doubt on God’s existence: “If there really is a God up above / 2 Him I owe my life 4 U my love.”
The reason "The Grand Progression" and its related storyline were cut from Graffiti Bridge possibly relate to Purple Rain, which still loomed large over his career in 1990. Contrary to popular belief, Graffiti Bridge was not originally intended to be a Purple Rain sequel. In the beginning, it was a much more spiritual film, one that Warner Bros. had trouble backing.
In PrinceVault’s detailed history of the project, Graffiti Bridge wasn’t going to star Prince’s famous “The Kid” character, but instead the emerging “Camille” persona first heard on Sign 'O’ the Times and destined for the ill-fated Black Album and Camille album projects. In his original vision, Prince’s “Camille Blue” character would be paired with Madonna’s “Ruthie Washington” and “Vienna” played by Cat Glover (star of Prince’s Sign 'O’ the Times concert film, which is premiering on Showtime in September). In the end, the only Madonna collaboration to officially materialize would be “Love Song” from her 1989 album Like a Prayer.
Sheila E., Dr. Fink, and most of prince’s Sign-era band members also had parts in the original film. But by the time cameras started rolling, the last Revolution members had departed and the New Power Generation era had begun, christened with their theme song in the film’s soundtrack. A Kim Basinger version of the script also came and went, one Prince co-wrote with the actress during the romance that blossomed post Batman soundtrack and the Scandalous Sex Suite EP. In the final film, the parts intended for Basinger and Jill Jones were morphed into a role given to Ingrid Chavez, a pivotal figure in Prince’s life who inspired him to stop the release of the dark Black Album in exchange for the more uplifting Lovesexy project.
As Thorne notes in his book, in the film, the grand progression is the perfect chord sequence that reveals a location of great spiritual importance, but in reality, "He needed a song that would be even more epic and successful than Purple Rain to make this sequel work." Even though he gave up on the song, "The Grand Progression" still kept a special place in his heart. As PrinceVault remembers, in the song "F.U.N.K.", Prince sings "Well, it may not be the grand progression, but it sure is funky".
As former manager Bob Cavallo recounted the origin of Graffiti Bridge to Thorne, Prince showed the original 30-page treatment to him and said, "I'll work with you again, but you've got to help me make this movie." Cavallo said the story looked interesting and promised to hook Prince up with some hip writers to fast track a script. Prince retorted, "What are you talking about, that is the script."
In the end, the only way Prince could get the film made was to mold it into a Purple Rain sequel. Shot primarily on sound stages at Paisley Park without a lot of extras to give the concert sequences energy, Graffiti Bridge loses much of the grit that made Purple Rain so compelling and, instead, plays like a series of interconnected music videos.
In a 1990 interview with Select magazine, Morris Day said, “In Purple Rain we were small time crooks and now we've graduated to the big time. It's really about the rivalry between us and The Kid, who is the picked-on, felt-sorry-for hero. But in the end he gets the girl and he beats us with a ballad." If only that ballad was “The Grand Progression," and Prince’s original vision for the film came to be, Graffiti Bridge might have done a bit more than the $4.5 million it pulled in at the box office. But for now, fans can still appreciate the film, and all of its amazing music, in the Blu-ray trilogy released by Warner Bros. Home Video in 2016.