"Did I think anyone would still be talking about Purple Rain 30 years after it was made? From the trenches, honestly, no,” says Albert Magnoli. But Magnoli, whose first film it was, persevered through the skirmishes, and triumphed. Buoyed by a smash soundtrack that hit stores a month earlier, one that would yield the No. 1 singles “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” Purple Rain, released on July 27, 1984, scared the reigning Ghostbusters from the top spot at the box office that weekend. Solidifying the stardom of Prince in his big screen debut, Purple Rain grossed a worldwide total of $156 million as he and his famed purple motorcycle zoomed into the pantheon of rock movie classics.
Its director says posterity was the furthest thing from his mind as the semi-autobiographical story of “The Kid” and his struggles with career and family took shape in the sub-sub zero weather of Prince’s native Minneapolis in late 1983. Magnoli, a 1981 graduate of the Film School at the University of Southern California, was editing the romantic melodrama Reckless when Prince’s manager, Robert Cavallo, dropped by MGM in search of a director for a film to star his client, whose double album 1999 (1982) had generated the hits “Little Red Corvette” and “Delirious.” “Robert was looking for the director of Reckless, my friend and classmate James Foley,” Magnoli recalled. “I met Bob in the editing suite and afterwards I excitedly told Jamie, ‘I got our next movie! A movie starring Prince!’ Jamie just looked at me and said, ‘Who’s Prince?’ Despite 1999 he was still sort of a fringe artist.”
The script Cavallo was touting wasn’t exactly No. 1 with a bullet, either. “Jamie said to me, ‘Have you read this thing? It’s miserable. I pass,’” Magnoli said. “Bob, frustrated, said everyone was passing. So I read it overnight, and was equally horrified; not only would it not work in a million years, it would in no way relate to the core audience that I figured might be out there. It was written for Prince, but the writer had no time to immerse himself in the musical culture of Minneapolis—Prince and the Revolution, The Time, that whole scene. Bob called the next morning and I told him the truth—which was, that after only six months in the film industry myself, I knew nothing, but I knew more than he did.”
At USC Magnoli had written, directed, produced, and edited a widely acclaimed student film, Jazz (1979), about a trio of musicians in Los Angeles. He advised that Cavallo hire a writer-director who would closely observe Prince and his milieu, and communicate the truth of what he saw. Magnoli pitched a backstage storyline, and persuaded Cavallo to arrange a meeting with Prince in Minneapolis once the would-be writer-director had seen all the video footage Cavallo had of his client. Complications ensued.
“The video was depressing,” Magnoli said. “He was so unpolished. I thought about calling it off. On the way to the airport I asked the limo driver, a young black guy, if he knew Prince and what he thought of him. ‘Isn’t he a f*g?’ he said. So now I’ve got that on my back.”
Not to mention an entourage waiting in Minneapolis, including Prince’s second manager, Steve Fargnoli, “and this blonde, Nordic chick, 6’6”, his bodyguard.” “Steve’s first words to me weren’t ‘Hello, how are you?’ but ‘Get this straight, we don’t care about the f**king story you’ve come to tell us about; we’re doing the script the way it is.’ I said, ‘Yes, sir,’ knowing that wasn’t how I felt. Prince, in a long black coat, met me at midnight as had been arranged and, as I watched him intently in the lobby of the hotel where we met, we got in his car, where I was reminded, yet again, to say simply that we were doing the script as written.
“I said, ‘Let me ask you, if I have the father punch you in the face in the first five minutes of the movie, is that okay?’ He asked why, and I said, 'Everyone on the planet wants to punch a rock star in the face.' He laughed, saying, 'Yep, I understand that,' and I said, ‘Let’s go make a movie.’” − Albert Magnoli
“We went to a Denny’s, where he ordered spaghetti and orange juice and I ordered a grilled cheese and whole milk. Awkward silence. He said, ‘What did you think about my script?’ My script. I said, ‘I think it sucks.” I figured I had nothing to lose. He looked to his right, and then to his left, at Steve and the blonde, like, ‘you f**kers lied to me.’ He asked me what sucked about it, and because I had watched him earlier on I could fill in a lot of the blanks in the story I had come up with. He said, ‘Huh,’ dismissed Steve and the blonde, and drove me to this empty field in the middle of nowhere, where I thought he might kill me. Instead he asked me how it was I had such insight into his life.
“I said, ‘Let me ask you, if I have the father punch you in the face in the first five minutes of the movie, is that okay?’ He asked why, and I said, 'Everyone on the planet wants to punch a rock star in the face.' He laughed, saying, 'Yep, I understand that,' and I said, ‘Let’s go make a movie.’”
Prince had produced 100 songs for potential use in the movie, and Magnoli listened to them all in choosing the dozen ultimately selected, using some of their lyrics for dialogue to transition from musical sequences to narrative. “When Doves Cry,” whose appeal was initially questioned by Cavallo because it lacked a bass line, provided the underscore for a memorable montage; “Purple Rain,” a song not among the hundred, provided the film its emotional climax, and title, when Magnoli heard Prince perform it live at the First Avenue nightclub.
His “saturation” in Prince’s life and the First Avenue gave the film a hum of authenticity that continues to reverberate. Purple Rain would go on to win two Grammys and an Oscar for the musician, the latter for best original song score, the last time that category was used. The immersion continued—in 1989 Magnoli directed hit music videos for Prince’s Batman soundtrack and served as his manager for a time. But it was that baptism by fire on their first film that stands out for him. “Prince’s discipline, which all the other musicians picked up on, carried us through the film,” Magnoli said. “Their energy just vibrates through the movie.”