The song, the album, the film, the legacy
For everyone who has ever heard of Prince, these two words automatically come to mind. While this film was the biggest move he ever made and most likely the best move he made as an artist, it also orchestrates a trap. Every big artist is synonymous with a huge film release and/or their signature song. Once their signature song is identified, they are forever bound to that song. When people think of Prince, they think of Purple Rain and automatically assume that there’s nothing else to him, making it one of the biggest misconceptions, if not the biggest, about him.
While this book sets out to prove that there is more to Prince than this highlight of his career, it wouldn’t be quite complete without some discussion on it. It might not be his best album, but it is ONE of his best. One of my personal favorites even. The film is also one of those classic 80’s movies that defined the era and while its production isn’t the greatest in Hollywood, its appeal ranks with John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
The following includes spoilers for this film.
If you do not wish to see how it ends, do not read any further.
Up until this point, 1982 was Prince’s biggest year yet. He had released his first two-disc LP 1999 followed by a successful five month tour that ran from November 11, 1982 to April 10, 1983. During which time, rumors started circulating that Prince was working on a big idea to take him to the next level of stardom. Some of his band members noted his use of a purple notebook on the road. What he was working on was anyone’s guess, but a few months later, Prince came out with the idea of a film. He told Bob Cavallo, one of the film’s producers, that he wanted the film to dictate the life he was living as he was living it, he wanted it to be full of music and he wanted to star in it. Given that the film would involve first-time actors, first-time producers and filming in Minneapolis, nobody was willing to take on the task of directing the film. One of the choices for director referred the producers to Al Magnoli and so, the film’s production began.
What Al Magnoli didn’t know was that Prince had written over 100 songs for this project, of which he picked 12 to put in the film. In August 1983, Prince premiered the majority of the songs from the soundtrack at his favorite venue, First Avenue as well as his new guitarist, Wendy Melvoin. During which time, the first “draft” of the songs on the album were recorded that night.
Filming the movie in Minneapolis would soon prove to be problematic, so while there was time, the director wanted to start filming November 1st, 1983. The first shots were mostly by helicopter of Prince riding on his motorcycle, but the climax of that day involved Apollonia jumping into the lake as, more or less, a practical joke by Prince’s character. Two days later, there were a huge snowstorm, meaning a lot of the scenes had to be shot in Los Angeles.
One of the main focuses of the movie was this rivalry between bands. There was Prince and his group, The Revolution and there was The Time. The movie’s storyline begins in dire times where The Kid’s music isn’t attracting as many customers. Preparing to seize the number one spot at the club, Morris Day of The Time proposes that he put together a girl’s group, personally hoping to boot out his biggest competitor.
In actuality, Prince formed The Time and wrote the majority of their music. History shows that of Prince’s many protégés, The Time would turn out to be the most successful. Another of Prince’s protégés was a girl’s group called Vanity 6. Before Purple Rain went into production, Vanity left the group, so the producers had to find a new leading lady to take her place in the group as well as the center of The Kid and Morris’s affections. During their nationwide search, the producers found Patricia Kotero, to whom Prince gave the stage name Apollonia, turning Vanity 6 into Apollonia 6.
Since Prince was a musician, he wanted his music to be a key component in the film. Therefore, the club scenes had to be spot-on fantastic. Before any of the club scenes were shot, Prince researched his band extensively to make sure they were ready when the camera started rolling. The director set up 4-5 cameras and shot each song twice. Once he told Prince and the other groups where the cameras were and the stage crew worked on getting the perfect lighting, everything else took care of itself. All of the songs were shot in 10 days.
The burning question about this film for its viewers was: how autobiographical was Purple Rain?
Co-writer William Blinn said that the events in the film were based on those that happened or almost happened to Prince. Certain conflicts were factual and others weren’t. The rivalry between the bands at First Avenue and the friction between Prince and The Revolution were based on actual arguments. While a lot about the relationship between The Kid and his father and the scenes they shared together were based on true events, not everything about his father’s portrayal was accurate. There was no violence between his parents. His father didn’t swear or do drugs. The domestic violence and the suicide attempt were fabrications to “juice up” the script. According to Prince. One of the producers made a comment on the DVD’s commentary that the original ending involved a murder-suicide that WB voted down because of the reaction the public had to the film Star 80, which had the same twist. Ironically, according to this producer, Prince wanted the murder-suicide ending and he went as far to say “if it were up to Prince, a lot of people would have died.”
Two particular scenes between The Kid and his father were based on actual events. In the first, his father and mother had another fight and his father leaves the room with the words “I would die for you.” Quite possibly, that was why one of the songs on the album had that title. The second, which Magnoli took to heart, was a discussion that Prince had with his father in the basement where his father tells him, “never get married.” That scene in particular, Magnoli wanted to recreate for audiences to truly get a look into the life Prince lived, even that particular exchange occurred years ago.
While Prince worked his fellow musicians and encouraged all of them to play themselves on set, Magnoli wanted to do with the same with Prince. He wanted to bring out what he saw in Prince so it could resonate with the audience. [more later]
Throughout the film, Prince didn’t object to Al Magnoli’s interpretation of his music in the storyline and greatly embraced his vision. Another argument between Prince and his label later ensued over the hit single When Doves Cry. When Magnoli realized he had to put a montage into the film, he asked Prince one night to write a song for it. The next morning, Prince called him up, saying he had two songs finished for him. Magnoli loved When Doves Cry for the fact that its rhythm didn’t follow that of the montage. Prince later asked him for back-up when WB wanted Prince to add more instruments to a song that he already deemed as perfect. Prince won that battle. When released, Prince had a hit single for a film that wouldn’t come out for a couple more months. Another song that didn’t exist before the film’s production was the duet Take me with U featuring Prince and Apollonia, which was featured in the Lake Minnetonka scene. Rumor has it that with the addition of this song to the soundtrack, others had be edited so all of the songs could fit on one LP.
Surprisingly, when the film first went into production, the song Purple Rain didn’t exist yet. During this time, though, Prince and The Revolution had been working on a song. Prince came up with the original concept and had his band arrange their parts around him. A few members of his band (past and present) had discussions with him about the fact he didn’t have a signature song, a song that would reach people emotionally and spiritually. In the film, Purple Rain was ultimately the song Prince’s band mates Lisa and Wendy had written and the source of their conflict. Their goal is to play some of their music at First Avenue when Prince wants to play only the music he wrote. As they clash over their place in the band, Prince listens to the cassette tape they give him a couple of times. In the end, he decides to play it and with it, solidifies The Revolution’s place at the club. Therefore, Prince suggested it as the title of the film.