I never meant to cause you any sorrow…
Purple Rain arrived in theatres on July 27, 1984. Prince was a well-known and controversial musician by then. He had scored three big hits off of his previous album, 1999. He was not however, a phenomenon. By July 28th, that had changed. Forever.
It was no surprise that the album of the same name was a big success. Chock full of hooks and guitar power as it was. The record came at just the right time. 1999 had laid the groundwork, and Purple Rain rolled over it like the motorcycle Prince drove in the film. The surprise was how big the film was. It opened at number one, went on to make 68 million dollars in its initial release. A cool 190 million when adjusted for inflation.
It didn’t just catch the zeitgeist – it tamed it, and made it its own.
Purple Rain is not a perfect film. It’s more music video than movie. The script is largely a delivery device for the performances. Outside of the concert footage, only one sequence, a long tracking shot following Prince down a hallway and into a room with a piano, is all that exceptional. There are a couple of truly cringe-inducing moments of misogyny, and the acting of the cast (outside of the great Clarence Williams III) is often a bit wooden. The one wonderful bit of writing in the film is the “what’s the password” scene between Morris Day and Jerome Benton. Which is right up there with Abbott and Costello’s “who’s on first” routine.
There are a lot of chinks in the film’s armor. But man, look at all that armor.
I was 13 years old the first time I snuck in to see Purple Rain. I knew Prince. I loved 1999, Little Red Corvette, and Delirious. Hell, I loved most of whatever was on the radio. I wasn’t terribly discerning. Prince changed that though.
When I was sitting in my seat in that cruddy little small-town theatre, I had an awakening. For the first time in my life, I knew I was in the presence of genius. Prince was and still is unlike anything I have ever experienced. Masculine. Feminine. Sacred. Profane. And my god, all the gifts. Prince had a band, but he didn’t always need one. Every single sound on his biggest hit, When Doves Cry, is made by him.
I think he could have been a good actor were he not so married to his music. He is charismatic. Dynamic. And lord knows, the camera loved him.
More than anything though, Purple Rain is a grand artistic statement. One that resonated on the airwaves, charts, and at the box office. There was one week when Prince had the number one single, album, and movie in the country. No one else had ever done that before. It took Eminem’s 8 Mile to change that. A party of two, they are.
And just as Prince was at the peak of his popularity, he chose to go forward without a safety net. It would have been easy to pump out Purple Rain 2. Instead, he went into psychedelia, made a weird tragicomedy called Under The Cherry Moon which he directed. It flat out bombed. Stopping his film career all but flat. His musical career remained healthy all the way up until his untimely death. You only get to be a sensation once though. It’s like discovering fire. Once you’ve done so, the mystery slides away. The ability to be surprised by the same wood and kindling becomes more difficult.
What is lasting is what that discovery meant to you. Because of Prince, I began to look at music, film, art, and even life in a different way. It did not matter that the vehicle for this revelation was an uneven movie with its share of issues from nearly top to bottom. What mattered was the driver of said locomotive.
After Purple Rain, everything became about Prince for me. In a tiny town where most guys unironically worshiped the teased hair and thick makeup of bands like Motley Crue and Ratt, it wasn’t always cool to be a huge fan of the guy who wore high heels, embraced feminine clothes and sang in an often-high-pitched voice.
I stuck with the little fella, and I was more than redeemed over time for doing so. By the time of his passing, Prince was widely regarded as one of the greatest musicians of his era. A most distinctive figure. His solo at the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame while joining Tom Petty on While My Guitar Gently weeps is the stuff of legend. You would also be hard pressed to find many people who don’t believe his halftime performance at the Super Bowl to be the best of its kind.
I’m not sure if any of that would have happened without Purple Rain, the movie. A low-budget gamble that had it not worked, would have been a significant embarrassment. Think of Glitter, if you must. But work it did. Largely on the power of a force of nature that stood 5 feet 2 without heels. My jaw still drops slightly when I think of the guitar solo that closes Let’s Go Crazy. The wild wailing scream at the peak of The Beautiful Ones. That little pause during his performance of the title song, “I never wanted to be your…weekend lover.” It still slays me every time.
34 years ago, I walked into a movie theatre and found the most talented person I’d ever seen standing before me on a huge movie screen. Although he was diminutive in physical stature, he was a giant to me. I was hardly the only one. Nearly 3 and a half decades later, and though he be gone from this world, very little has changed.
I don’t even like to think of him as dead. More like he returned to the cosmos from whence he came. Having given us mere mortals far more than we deserved. I imagine him and David Bowie trading lines on Fame, or Under The Cherry Moon. Man, can you picture it? Better yet, can you hear it? Prince and Bowie floating ‘round a tin can, playing glorious notes to an audience of stars and constellations. What a feast that would be.
Originally published at awardsdaily.com