At the time of the release of Purple Rain the album on June 25, 1984, and the film of the same name on July 27, 1984, Prince was hardly a household name. By the close of 1985, the artist born Prince Rogers Nelson (1958–2016) was selling out concert stadiums, the album would have spent 24 weeks at No. 1, and the film would have grossed almost $70 million at the box office, 10 times what it cost to make.
Purple Rain would catapult Prince to superstardom. He would become an entertainment figure synonymous with the 1980s, alongside Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna. The album, a blend of rock, funk, pop and R&B, delivered hits including “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry,” “I Would Die 4 U” and the title track, which would score the artist his first and only Academy Award for Best Original Song Score.
'Purple Rain' was quasi-autobiographical
Purple Rain centered around The Kid (Prince), a Minneapolis-based musician with his band the Revolution. The Kid’s star is on the rise and he pours his life into his music, escaping a dysfunctional home life and the temptation to repeat what has gone before. He falls for the beguiling singer Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) and must rise to the challenge of Morris (Morris Day), a fellow performer who aims to eclipse The Kid’s stardom and steal his love interest.
Purple Rain lands at No. 76 on Rolling Stone’s list of greatest albums of all time. In 2007, Vanity Fair labeled it the best soundtrack of all time. The film regularly makes lists of the top music movies ever released. But the fact that the film was made, let alone go on to become a hit, was almost inconceivable in the early 1980s.
There was an inevitability about Purple Rain, Alan Light, author of Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain told NPR. “Prince was the great genius of his day, and there was gonna be some vehicle that was gonna come along and translate that to the world. But if you look at the moment that it happened, when Prince went to his managers and said, ‘You have to get me a feature-film deal or you’re fired.’ And what came out was a movie with a first-time director [Albert Magnoli], first-time producer, you know, Prince as the star who’d never acted, his band as most of the cast – and they said, ‘We’re gonna shoot in Minneapolis in the winter.’ Now, which piece of that sounds like it was going to be a big success?”
Despite the hurdles involved, Light says what he came to appreciate more than anything while writing the book was the sense of vision Prince brought to the movie, that he could see “a potential and possibility that really didn’t even make sense to the people who were closest to him at the time.”
“We just wanted to something good and something true,” Magnoli is quoted as saying in Lets Go Crazy. At the time, Magnoli was a 30-year-old director who had only one acclaimed student short film to his credit. “The producer was on the same page, we had an artist who wanted the same things, a group of musicians who felt the same way. It was one of the very few times when everybody actually wanted to make the same movie – which sounds obvious but is actually very, very rare in the movie business.”
Despite what many thought, Prince knew he was 'making history'
Looking back, Magnoli recalls viewing the project as something unencumbered of the iconic version of Prince fans would come to adore. “We didn’t know we were making a major motion picture,” he told Yahoo Entertainment. “And working with Prince wasn’t working with the ‘Prince’ who became the worldwide star he became after the movie. … He was still considered by most people as a fringe artist. So, we went into the film believing we were making a fringe movie.”
Prince, though, knew better. “He was frantically telling us we were making history: We’re making history tonight; this is history tonight!” recalls Revolution drummer Bobby Z of the night they shot their concert scenes for the film at the Minneapolis club First Avenue.
The movie hit screens at an opportune time. Thanks to MTV the popularity of the music video was skyrocketing; former sexual taboos were being explored in the popular culture, and Black culture was transforming due to new voices and a landscape ready to embrace different forms of entertainment than had gone before. Already riding a wave of success due to the prior release of the album, fans flocked to the cinemas when the film debuted. raking in $7.6 million during its opening weekend, Purple Rain knocked Ghostbusters out of first place at the box office.
Reviews for 'Purple Rain' the film were mixed
Critics were mixed in their reaction to the film. Purple Rain “demonstrates the skills of the recording industry far more effectively than it does those of movie making,” critic Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times. “Though its women characters are supposed to be strong and independent, they are suckers for the men who knock them around with brutal regularity.”
Purple Rain “is one of the best combinations I’ve seen of music and drama,” said Roger Ebert. “This is the first movie they’ve made together, Prince and Apollonia come across with really exciting romantic chemistry. I like the movie. I thought it was the best rock film since Pink Floyd’s The Wall.”
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman wrote that “there are a few, sour juvenile moments, but this is the rare pop movie that works the way a great rock & roll song does: It tells a simple, almost elemental tale and uses the music to set it aflame. Prince magnetizes the camera with The Stare – a rivetingly narcissistic come-hither gaze that’s equal parts genetics, attitude, and eyeliner.”
Prince compared creating the movie and album to 'giving birth'
The album and film would become a defining moment for the notoriously press-averse performer, who reportedly once referenced the huge success of the album as “my albatross – it’ll be hanging around my neck as long as I’m making music.”
While it may have been a metaphorical weight he would carry for the rest of his life, Prince never wavered in his belief that what he was creating at the time – both musically and cinematically – would go on to become a global phenomenon. “I was there,” the enigmatic performer says in Let’s Go Crazy. “I did it, it was my baby. I knew about it before it happened. I knew what it was going to be. Then it was just like labor, like giving birth – in ’84, it was so much work.”