The pop legend forever known as Prince was just 25 years old when the makings of his career-defining opus, Purple Rain, fell into shape. By then, the multi-instrumentalist and budding musical genius had already been recording for a decade, was already a star artist for Warner Bros. Records, had charted five studio albums, and landed in heavy rotation on MTV with his erotic rock single, “Little Red Corvette.”
The driven dreamer from Minneapolis, Minnesota, had skyrocketed to fame with his polysexual mystique and charismatic stage presence, in spite of his diminutive 5-foot-5 frame. His talent was unmistakable. Bridging the gap between funk, rock, and R&B, the artist born Prince Rogers Nelson was as daring as he was prolific, and the mainstream was taking notice.
The previous year he’d toured the United States with his new band, appropriately named The Revolution, along with two of his other creations: Vanity 6 and The Time. But in 1983, when it came time to re-up with manager and future Warner Bros. and Disney music chairman Rob Cavallo, Prince had one condition: He wanted to star in a movie.
Cavallo found a writer to script the semiautobiographical project, originally titled Dreams. But directors passed left and right, according to Purple Rain lore. When a young USC film school grad and editor named Albert Magnoli lucked into the gig after pitching Cavallo a slightly different take over breakfast at Du-Par’s in the Valley, as retold in Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy: The Making Of Purple Rain, Magnoli landed in the director’s chair.
Magnoli’s revision of William Blinn’s draft added details hand-picked from Prince’s life and his relationships with his extended stage family—performers like Morris Day and Jerome Benton of The Time, Dez Dickerson, Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, and members of The Revolution, who play themselves in the film.
The story came into focus with Prince starring as The Kid, an alternately glorified and unflinchingly ugly version of his real-life persona. A star of the Minneapolis nightclub scene, The Kid is utterly talented but cocky and controlling, the troubled product of a tumultuous home who’s terrified of repeating his failed musician-father’s pattern of aspiration, frustration, and abuse. A bitter turf war with the front man of a rival house band (Morris Day) escalates when his singer girlfriend (Apollonia) joins a competing group, leading The Kid to a reckoning with himself over his artistry and the personal demons that simultaneously fuel him and threaten to destroy everything he’s built.
Underneath the melodrama, the humor, and the flashes of long misunderstood misogyny runs the electric current that powers Purple Rain: its music. No fewer than five singles went on to chart internationally off of the soundtrack that studio distributor Warner Bros. had in its back pocket in case the movie tanked: the infectious “Let’s Go Crazy,” which opens the film; “When Doves Cry”; “I Would Die 4 U”; “Take Me With U”; and the title track, “Purple Rain.”
There’s not a throwaway song to be found on the rest of the soundtrack, from “Darling Nikki”—the raunchy song that put Prince on Tipper Gore’s radar—“The Beautiful Ones,” “Computer Blue,” and “Baby I’m A Star.” When Purple Rain aligned story with song, it was perfect, using music to underscore character and narrative much like some films use fight choreography and wordless action to convey the unspoken and the unspeakable.
Given his choice of 100 completed Prince demos to choose from, Magnoli had “Let’s Go Crazy” in mind for an opening sequence inspired by The Godfather’s cross-cutting baptism scene. “When Doves Cry,” incredibly enough, was written in a day by Prince, the only song explicitly inspired by his character’s relationship with Apollonia and his parents.
Magnoli caught the first performance of “Purple Rain” two months before filming on the $7 million production began, when 19-year-old Melvoin made her debut with the future Purple One at a Minneapolis show. He used it not only as the film’s title and emotional crescendo, but to give The Kid a crucial line of redemption after spending most of Purple Rain denying Wendy and Lisa their own creative expression. The year after Purple Rain opened at No. 1 and unseated Ghostbusters at the box office, its titular theme song won Prince an Oscar.
In Purple Rain we see Prince express the tortured impulses one could read into his later work in film, music, and beyond—in the decades of sporadic reclusiveness, after his rebirth as a Jehovah’s Witness, adopting his late mother’s faith, and in the creative battles glimpsed within and outside of the recording industry. Few other musicians have cultivated such a magnetic and feverishly devoted cult of personality while remaining so intensely private—all the way up to his death yesterday at the age of 57.
Watch Prince in Purple Rain now and he seems to leap off the screen with that iconic leonine sensuality, utterly alive and seething even in moments of stillness, his gaze fixed determinedly on his enemies, his woman, or his audience. Out of the purple ether Prince painted a perfect picture of young, imperfect masculine brio. His sex scene with Apollonia, all tongues and groping facing the camera, is still shockingly erotic today.
A cinematic Prince completist might even cue up his 1990 film Graffiti Bridge, the unofficial sequel to Purple Rain. In the six years in between, Prince tried his own hand at directing, with disastrous results—namely, the $12 million Fred Astaire-esque period bomb Under The Cherry Moon, which he also starred in as a con artist who falls in love with his mark (Kristen Scott Thomas).
He scored minor vindication with his next directorial effort, his own concert doc Sign O’ The Times. But in Graffiti Bridge, which he also wrote, Prince returned to personal exploration and a personal role, reprising his turn as an older, slightly wiser, but still existentially tormented Kid.
As in Purple Rain, the clubs of Graffiti Bridge are literal manifestations of the artist’s domain—and once again, serve as the battleground for Prince’s philosophical war with himself. Morris Day returns as Morris Day, now a nightclub magnate bent on buying out Prince’s joint, the Glam Slam, to play more commercially lucrative music instead of the “spiritual noise” Prince’s Kid finds himself drawn to.
As a creator—and self-anointed messiah figure—Prince’s thematic agenda is at least more focused than his filmmaking chops. Graffiti Bridge is about a lot of things: Prince reclaiming his Prince-liness, faith, ownership, and content. The Kid can’t deny that catchy jams get the people moving, and giving up in the face of corporate domination isn’t the way out.
In the end a spiritual ballad wins over greed and power after gospel singers Mavis Staples and a pint-sized Tevin Campbell help Prince—looking like a New Age funk Jesus—choose the path of musical righteousness. Sure, the film went on to garner five Razzie Awards. But as he croons “Love Will Stand The Test Of Time” swathed in a gauzy white shroud, his arms outstretched, Prince’s divinity ultimately appeals to all the searching souls of Graffiti Bridge. You can believe that he believed, as he always seemed to, in the enduring truth of his Purple Gospel: that his artistic purity would triumph in the end, over all.