From Chapter Six of my new Prince biography, Purple Reign, out now.
Up until 1984, the history of rock stars starring in movies had been chequered, to put it mildly. Elvis Presley made 32 movies of which at least 30 were considered duds. The Beatles made five movies during their lifespan as a group, all highly entertaining to Beatles fans but of limited interest to serious moviegoers. Bob Dylan had taken a minor role in Pat Garret & Billy The Kid, and been scorned for it. Everyone else – from The Monkees to Kiss, to Marc Bolan and Pink Floyd – had been largely eviscerated for their efforts. There were some great ‘rock movies’ – The Girl Can’t Help It, Easy Rider, Jubilee – and some immersive documentaries – Woodstock, The Concert For Bangladesh, The Last Waltz. The only movies made though featuring a major rock star in the lead role that received serious and sustained critical attention had been Performance, starring Mick Jagger, and The Man Who Fell To Earth, starring David Bowie.
What on earth did 25-year-old Prince think he could bring to the table with his movie that would place him in the latter, more exulted category? The answer was simple: Prince would bring himself! What could possibly be more interesting than that?
He was in for a rude awakening though when he first met the movie’s 23-year-old director, Albert Magnoli. When Prince asked Magnoli what he thought of the script, which Prince had written himself, Magnoli told him simply: “I think it sucks.” Still new to the business – he had only graduated from the Film School at the University of Southern California two years earlier – Magnoli had immediately identified the chief weakness of Prince’s initial script: although it was essentially an autobiographical story about his life as ‘The Kid’, it was too internalised. It failed to address “the musical culture of Minneapolis — Prince and the Revolution, The Time, that whole scene.” There was a movie to be made here but saddled with that script it would “not work in a million years.”
Requesting a video compilation of Prince’s performances, to try and see a way around the problem, Magnoli was even more downcast. “The video was depressing. 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 fag?’ he said. So now I’ve got that on my back too.”
Eventually, in the early hours in the morning, Prince drove Magnoli out to spot “in the middle of nowhere, where I thought he might kill me.” Instead, he looked at Magnoli and asked him why he was so sure about the changes he wanted to make to the movie.
Magnoli recalled: “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.’”
The next step was to help Prince choose which of over 100 songs he had written for the movie would work best. Together, they eventually picked 12, partly based on the music – Prince – partly based on how the lyrics could help form parts of the dialogue or help different scenes segue into the narrative. It was this process that brought ‘When Doves Cry’ to the forefront – a track not everyone had been convinced by as it came without a bass line. In Magnoli’s hands, though, it would form part of one of the most impressive montages in the film.
The only track not from the original 100 songs Prince submitted for consideration was the one that would provide both the starburst climax to the movie – and which Prince wrung every drop of emotion from his guitar – and gives the film its enigmatic title, ‘Purple Rain’. Magnoli had first heard Prince play it during a benefit show for his friend Loyce Holton who ran the Minnesota Dance Theatre, held at First Avenue, the downtown Minneapolis nightclub where so many scenes in the movie would later be filmed.
By then Magnoli had become Prince’s shadow, following him around trying to get a better idea of the real scene Prince now inhabited, at least in his hometown – the very thing that would give the finished film its air of authenticity, of reality. Decades before the advent of what we now know as ‘reality TV’, Purple Rain would invite its audience in to see every different side of the real-life Prince as Magnoli could capture on film. The fact that Prince’s ‘fictionalised’ celluloid version of his story also happened to be so glamourous – and downright sexy – as he rode around town on his purple motorcycle, actually reflected only a portion of the real-life adventures the principal star was now having, both in front of and a million miles away from the cameras. The fact was Prince was always on. The movie just emphasised how much so.
The end result, released in July 1984, was an instant, worldwide success, shooing Ghostbusters from No. 1 at the American box-office and sending Prince’s star into the stratosphere. Certainly it was the most fun, go-see movie in America that summer: ideal for dating couples to get their groove on to; perfect for single males and females to whirl and twirl to as they fantasised about escaping into their own parallel purple universes.