Dearly beloved. We are gathered here today…
If you are a certain age and grew up with even a glancing knowledge of pop music, chances are those words bring to mind not a priest in black robes solemnly officiating a religious ceremony, but a different kind of spiritual leader: A diminutive, ruffle-frocked, permed and pompadoured, hypersexualized faun in high-heeled boots and a beauty mark who referred to himself as “the Messiah.”
This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of Purple Rain, the movie, soundtrack, and single that made Prince a star and incited a generation to “look for the purple banana”—whatever that might be. From the film’s very first shot, showing a backlit Prince on stage at Minneapolis’s First Avenue nightclub incanting the opening words of “Let’s Go Crazy,” we knew we were in for a sticky, syrupy, irresistible treat.
Because Prince is scrupulous about wiping his material from YouTube, it is difficult to find clips from the film beyond the gloriously cheesy, self-important trailer, but the trailer is enough to give you a good idea of what the movie is like: big hair, capes, montages of Prince on a motorcycle, a plot that evaporates like the mist off Lake Minnetonka under the slightest scrutiny.
As Alan Light writes in his history of the film and album, Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain, when it was time to edit the footage, producer Robert Cavallo told director Albert Magnoli “here’s how the movie should go: song, tits and ass, joke, story. Song, tits and ass, joke, story.” Suffice to say, Magnoli delivered. Writing in the New Yorker, Pauline Kael declared the film “pretty terrible (there are no real scenes, just flashy, fractured rock-video moments) but those willing to accept Prince as a sexual messiah aren’t likely to mind.” That was putting it mildly. A month after the movie’s July, 1984 opening, Prince became the first artist to simultaneously top the movie, album, and singles charts.
Three decades on, Purple Rain is a camp classic along the lines of Rocky Horror Picture Show, with members of Prince’s band, The Revolution, reuniting at First Avenue each year to recite some of their most memorable lines (“God got Wendy’s periods reversed…”). Yet for all the seeming obviousness of the film’s appeal, it’s proved a surprisingly hard formula to replicate: Glitter, anyone?
Light doesn’t offer much insight into why Purple Rain, with its foppish star, almost entirely non-white cast, and decadent sexuality captured the imagination of a country deeply in love with Ronald Reagan and Bruce Springsteen. But he does dish some good gossip. Some of the most interesting factoids from Light’s book about how and why the movie got made:
It was cold as hell.
Filming got off to a rocky, err, snowy start. According to Light, “everyone involved in the… production, when asked about the actual shooting experience, immediately begins talking about the weather. “It was, like, five hundred degrees below zero,” says keyboardist Lisa Coleman.” Not quite, but at one point the temperature registered 29 below zero, with 21 inches of snow. Crew members had to cut through the ice on the streets to get shots. Which meant that…
Actors actually suffered to make this film.
The “waters of Lake Minnetonka” may have been purifying, but they were also freezing. Apollonia, aka Patricia Kotero, who plays Prince’s love interest in the film, suffered hypothermia doing repeated takes of her near-naked plunge into the lake, which, she later said, had frozen into a sheet of ice. If you watch the scene closely, you can see the California palm trees when they reshot part of the scene later in a more hospitable environment.
The film had great love scenes.
Apollonia won a Worst New Star Golden Raspberry for her role, but, other than Clarence Williams, who played Prince’s father, she was the most experienced actress on the movie. The rest of the cast had never acted before. Apollonia’s performance won her a role on Falcon Crest, as well as the admiration of Roger Ebert, who called her “electrifying,” saying her love scenes with Prince were “the most erotic love scenes that I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.” To judge her acting abilities for yourself, check out her videos on YouTube for “Sex Shooter.”
Prince was a bit of a hard-ass.
Prince may have pranced around like a carefree libertine onstage, but in rehearsal he was more drill sergeant than sprite. To prepare for the movie, he rehearsed his band relentlessly. “There was no real fun in it,” Light quotes Prince’s ex-girlfriend Susannah Melvoin (who is the twin sister of Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin.) “If you were five minutes late, he’d dock your pay. You might work on the same groove for five hours nonstop, some three-bar thing over and over. It was like the army.”
He was nowhere near as crazy as his public persona.
Perhaps even more surprising than his taskmaster side is Prince’s regular guy persona, which he revealed to his band but never the press. While he carefully cultivated a public image of an enigmatic, near-mute artist (refusing to do interviews for the movie, giving five-word acceptance speeches at the Grammy’s), Prince could be goofy, relaxed, and down-to-earth among friends. As Wendy Melvoin told Light, the band had a nickname for the “adorable,” sneaker-wearing guy “you ate grapes and went to the grocery store with:” Steve. Thank U 4 a funky time, Steve.