I’m going to need some time to process today’s news that Prince Rogers Nelson has passed away. Not unlike David Bowie, Prince was one of those artists so otherworldly that the very concept they could be mortal is almost beyond belief.
While I’m sure at some point I’ll find the time/space to write something more thorough, here’s something I had on-hand that speaks to what Prince has meant — both to me and to music. Back in 2014, my friends with the Halifax Thrillema film series hosted a 20th anniversary screening of Purple Rain and graciously allowed me to introduce the film.
Here’s what I had to say:
Both Purple Rain the album and Purple Rain the film begin with a sermon. The album ends, and the film climaxes, with a hymn — one of rock’s greatest, drenched in the spiritual power of reverb. In between, things get sexy, things get awkward, things get very, very purple.
Tom Ewing, one of my favorite pop critics, has written about the idea of an “imperial phase”: a short-lived, accelerated time in a career in which an artist seizes authority over a cultural moment. Ewing suggests Prince’s imperial phase might be among the longest in popular music, and he has a point. From Dirty Mind in 1980 through to arguably the Batman soundtrack in 1989, no one produced more great music than Prince Rogers Nelson — not Michael Jackson, not Madonna, no one. But if Prince had an imperial moment, a singular time in which his cultural reach was at its most concentrated, it’s Purple Rain. We could even narrow that moment down further to the first week of August, 1984, when Prince claimed number one album, the number one single and the number one movie in America.
Purple Rain ended 1984 as the ninth-highest-grossing film of the year, making back its budget nearly 10 times over — not bad for a project that nearly everyone not named Prince doubted at one point or another. It’s easy to forget now, but Prince was no pop icon before Purple Rain. He’d only just cracked the Top 10 for the first time in 1982 with “Little Red Corvette” when he demanded a feature film deal as a condition of resigning with his management company. Hubris and confidence had gotten Prince this far; why not go all-in?
The first draft of the film’s script was written by William Blynn, showrunner of the TV series Fame, before being rewritten by first-time director Albert Magnoli. The story is autobiographical in spirit, if not in detail, and is based around a competition between Prince’s “the Kid” and rival band Morris Day and the Time. In reality The Time, like Appolina 6 (and Vanity 6 before them) was a glorified side-project, with Prince writing all the music, performing all the parts and dictating all creative decisions. Some of the tension on-screen, though, is likely quite real: Prince had recently fired Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis from the Time (the duo became hitmakers with Janet Jackson thereafter) and Morris Day ended up quitting shortly after the movie’s release over his disagreements with Prince. That’s a somewhat disappointing exit for a man who, some have argued, outperforms Prince in his own movie (off-stage, at the very least).
At the core of the film, of course, are its songs. As an album, Purple Rain is perhaps Prince’s greatest achievement: nine incredible tracks, no filler, a summary statement of everything that made him one of the defining artists of his or any era. Several of the songs were actually recorded live in front of an audience at the real life First Avenue club in Minneapolis. (If you know where to look on the Internet, you can find raw video of the title track — several minutes longer and lacking a few overdubs, but otherwise as-is on the record — and you can almost feel the energy flowing out of the song.) With four top-10 singles, including number one smash “When Doves Cry,” Purple Rain sold more than 20 million copies worldwide and stayed atop the Billboard album chart for an incredible 24 straight weeks. It also has the distinction of being the last recipient of the Academy Award for “Best Original Song Score” before the category was effectively discontinued.
So Purple Rain, the album, is an inarguable classic, deserving of its prominent place on most lists of the greatest albums ever made. In contrast, whether Purple Rain the film is even just “good” is actually an open question. It’s certainly a great deal better than Prince’s other films, which he directed and should only be viewed by the morbidly curious superfan. It’s been accused of misogyny, and certainly its portrayal of women problematic. I will say this about Purple Rain, though: it’s an endearingly earnest movie. Even when it strains belief, Purple Rain believes in itself, and does so with such force that it propels you through every awkward moment, every stilted performance until you’re once again back up onstage at the fictionalized First Avenue with the Revolution.
And it’s there, as you might expect, where Purple Rain becomes something transcendent. Simply put, what you’re about to witness are some of the greatest rock performances ever put to film. They ooze sex, danger, passion, urgency. And though they benefit a great deal from their cinematography, lighting and editing, in many ways they’re the real deal: none of them took more than two or three takes to film. Prince simply wouldn’t allow any more and, it turns out, didn’t need any more. According to Magnoli, Prince hit his marks every take.
And that hints at what makes Purple Rain so special. Most great music films are trying to capture a musical moment after the fact. Even A Hard Day’s Night (arguably the most zeitgeist-y music movie ever made) feels like an attempt to quickly capitalize and expand on a moment just as it’s breaking. Purple Rain, in contrast, is a musical moment — Prince’s imperial moment — being created right in front of our eyes. And while not everyone around him may quite realize what’s happening, the man in the middle of it all — the man hitting all his marks; the man with the cool purple coat and the badass motorcycle; the man who knows the geographic location of Lake Minnetonka — Prince knows.
This is his moment. This is Purple Rain.