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CNN’s new documentary ‘Prince: The End’ raises more questions than it answers

Prince photographed by Robert Whitman in 1979; Whitman is one of the subjects interviewed in CNN's new documentary on Prince

In what’s shaping up to be the biggest weekend in Prince news since his untimely passing, CNN’s HLN network has announced it will air a new documentary, Prince: The End, this Friday night to coincide with a big Prince tribute planned at Sunday night’s Grammys and Prince’s catalog reportedly hitting multiple major streaming services.

According to a press release, Prince: The End promises to “pull back the curtain to expose the secret struggles the music genius faced,” with contributions from the people who knew him best.

After watching an advanced screening of the documentary, it seems that more questions are raised than answered over the course of the special’s 40 minutes. Despite the salacious tone, dramatic background music, and leading questions, the documentary offers little in the way of new information regarding Prince’s passing. Instead, a cast of commentators — including CNN’s Van Jones, Sara Sidner and Alisyn Camerota; former MTV News anchor Kurt Loder; Rolling Stone’s Joe Levy; and an investigative journalist who researches celebrity deaths, Ian Halperin — retread known facts about Prince’s final weeks, including the Piano and a Microphone shows he played in Atlanta on April 14 and the emergency plane landing that grounded him in rural Illinois while making his way back to Minneapolis.

Shoehorned in amidst the speculation about Prince’s death are some very real and very touching conversations with his earliest collaborators and friends, and at times it feels like one is watching two different documentaries that are being spliced together in real time. Two of Prince’s earliest bandmates, his best friend André Cymone and cousin Chazz Smith, reflect on the earliest days of playing together in Grand Central. His first mentor, Pepé Willie, marvels at his obvious drive and talent, and his first manager, Owen Husney, reflects on helping Prince sign to Warner Bros. and launch his solo career.

What’s odd is how heavily the documentary leans on these relationships from Prince’s teenage years, and attempts to connect their narrative to the tragic story that unfolded 37 years later. Still grief-stricken, these sources can only wonder about what led to Prince’s death. In the words of Chazz Smith, “Somebody’s going to have to tell me the real story.” But unfortunately for those seeking answers, that somebody isn’t going to be CNN.

It’s a lot to attempt to wedge into 40 minutes: Not only the story of Prince’s life and musical origins, but how his career might have impacted his health, his relationships, and his ability to accept help when he needed it.

It’s unfortunate, then, but not surprising, that the documentary mixes up a few details — like where and when Prince told his fans to “wait a few days before you waste any prayers” (which he said on stage at Paisley Park on April 16) or in what context he tweeted the words “I am #transformed” (he was retweeting a fan’s reaction to his concert).

From an investigative journalism angle, they miss some major details of his final days, like the fact that Judith Hill was at his side during the emergency plane landing and has recounted her detailed memories of the evening to the New York Times, or that Prince had visited a nearby Walgreens the night before he was found dead.

The fact is that while we know how Prince died — of an accidental overdose of the intensely powerful opioid Fentanyl — we will likely never know why. Why is the unanswerable question we must all face whenever someone we care about dies, and no amount of speculation is going to put that nagging, sinking feeling to rest. Although the producers set out to get to the bottom of Prince’s story once and for all, I’m afraid the resulting documentary will only leave viewers feeling unsettled.

It turns out the sources interviewed for the documentary have been left feeling unsettled as well. As André Cymone’s wife, Katherine Copeland Anderson, wrote in a blog post today, they were never told that the resulting documentary would be about Prince’s death — instead, they believed it would be a special about his origins and creative life.

“This? This was what André was interviewed for? A show about how Prince died? I cannot express how deeply sad I am that this is a show and that André is now a part of it,” she writes. “Please accept our heartfelt apology for misjudging this moment.”