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A Brief Cinematic History of Purple Rain

With the release of Prince and The Revolution Live, this will be a good opportunity to discuss the genesis of the Purple Rain movie.

By Douglas Rasmussen
The story of how the Purple Rain movie came about is a fascinating look into the ambition and drive exhibited by Prince and would be integral to propelling him forward into pop superstardom.

Origins of the project and breaking racial barriers

Prior to Purple Rain, Prince did have chart successes with Controversy (1981) and 1999 (1982), but he was still a new emerging artist at the time. Indeed, he was also a new emerging African-American pop star at a time when avenues like the MTV music video channel were largely closed to Black artists. It would actually take the undeniable commercial successes of Black artists like Prince and Michael Jackson to break the pattern MTV had of playing mostly Caucasian, British New Wave and Top 40 pop hits. Monte Moir, keyboardist for the Time—a side project of Prince’s that would open for him—observed that this demographic shift was becoming noticeable in their concerts: “The 1999 tour was 90 percent Black until ‘Little Red Corvette’ came out. All of a sudden it shifted drastically. It got to be half and half, if not 60-40 white.” The beginnings of a crossover success, and therefore a commercial breakout into the mainstream, seemed imminent.

Despite being a twenty-four hour music channel with plenty of time to offer African-American artists airplay, MTV resolutely denied African-Americans the opportunity for equal air time with Caucasian artists. Andrew Goodwin in his essay “Fatal Distractions: MTV meets Postmodern Theory” in the anthology of critical essays Sound and Vision: A Music Video Reader” contends that, “MTV followed the music industry in defining ‘rock’ in essentially racist terms, as a form of music that excluded Blacks. It based its playlist on the ‘narrowcasting’ principle of American radio that viewed rock and ‘urban contemporary’ (i.e. dance music, often produced by Black artists) as incompatible.” As a result African American artists were excluded from regular rotation in the MTV line-up, at least until the growing success of Prince and Michael Jackson changed their policy.

Seeing this demographic shift Prince seized on the opportunity to expand on his growing audience and increase awareness in his brand. By the time of his fifth album, which was 1999, Prince’s contract was coming due. Warner Brothers was eager to re-sign Prince to another multi-year deal. Prince, however, had one major stipulation that almost derailed the process: he demanded that for him to re-sign he needed a major motion picture deal where his name would get top billing on the marquee. One of Prince’s managers, Bob Cavallo, explains the difficulty and improbability of getting a move deal this early on Prince’s career and having to coordinate this effort with Steve Fargnoli, who was another of Prince’s managers:

We thought we’d done an amazing job, and the first contract was coming due. Steve was with him in Atlanta, and I said, ‘Tell Prince we’re going to organize a contract with him for another five years.’ And Steve calls me and says, ‘You’re not going to believe this. The kid says he’ll sign if you get him a major motion picture. It has to be not from a jeweler or drug dealer but has to be from a major studio, and he wants his name above the title.’ I can’t tell you what an impossible task that was.”

— Steve Fargnoli

For a newly emerging pop star this was a bold move, especially to make it a make-or-break part of his record deal. Yet for the artist who also refused to sign his first record contract as a teenager until he was guaranteed to be able to produce his own music, this was part of a pattern in Prince to make unprecedented and ambitious deals that could have stalled his career at any moment.

A Brief Cinematic History of Purple Rain 1
Purple Rain movie poster

Finding a director

Charged with the responsibility of finding Prince a legitimate movie deal, the management team of Bob Cavallo, Joe Ruffalo, and Steve Fargnoli—none of whom had ever had any dealings, and therefore no business connections, with the film industry—had to venture into unknown territory. As an added obstacle, Warner Brothers viewed Prince as a successful, albeit distinctly ‘urban’ artist with a significant following in the African-American community. Even if concerts revealed that there was a demographic shift occurring, the record executives were largely ignorant of this shift. Eventually, Warner Brothers would agree to a limited budget of seven million dollars, and a huge portion of that amount owing to Warner Brothers music executive Mo Ostin fronting part of his own salary (reports range from two to four million). If the film flopped at the box office, Ostin would lose a significant portion of his own salary.

With a tentative deal in place, Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli had to then find a director willing to take on the project, which was not an easy task. Prince’s initial treatment for the premise of the movie, reprinted in the posthumously published memoir The Beautiful Ones, depicted a story that was grim, bleak, and nihilistic. In Prince’s initial vision for the movie the main protagonist, named ‘Prince,’ which more overtly connected the story to a semi-autobiographical narrative, witnessed the murder of his father at the hands of his mother, who would then kill herself. In the last scene of Prince’s version, instead of the moment of triumph that viewers would come to know, Prince would use that same gun to seriously consider suicide. The movie was called Dreams at this point, and it was difficult securing a screenwriter to fully flesh out the movie’s narrative.

Eventually, Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli would convince screenwriter William Blinn, who had written and produced the television series Fame (1982-1987). Blinn approved of Prince’s darker vision for the movie, lamenting that “once they resurrected the characters of the mother and father, they lost a little bit of the darkness.” In all likelihood, a movie that adhered more closely to Prince’s initial treatment or Blinn’s first draft (before Prince himself and director Albert Magnoli would rewrite much of it) would have ended up, at best, as a midnight cult success, perhaps more in the vein of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) or Tommy (1975), than the huge cultural phenomenon that it would go on to become. And while Prince would amend his creative vision to allow for a more conventional movie, as Cavallo notes, he did not compromise his initial vision, and that “someone who wants to be successful, but who will not sacrifice quality of vision” is a powerful combination. Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink echoes this point, adding “He was trying to become as mainstream as possible without violating his own philosophy; without having to compromise any of his ideas.”

After much difficulty in finding a director willing to take on this project, Cavallo finally was able to secure Albert Magnoli. Although Magnoli, who did not have a directing credit to his name yet, did reject it at first. As Cavallo states, “We got turned down by every director. I personally went out and talked to everybody.” Magnoli was the editor on director James Foley’s movie Reckless (1984), a romantic drama that was Foley’s directorial debut and was both commercially and critically disastrous, and yet, even he did not want to take on Prince’s movie project. Magnoli would only accept the offer after he was promised that he could rewrite the script to accommodate his personal vision of the movie, with which Prince approved of and agreed to the changes Magnoli wanted to make. Magnoli would later go on to say that Prince felt that Magnoli’s reworking of the script still held true to the original creative vision of the project: “The overall story, the sense of the Kid’s music representing a kind of life force and his home life representing the opposite of that, that was part of the plan from day one, not something I brought into it. That was what the movie was going to be.” Magnoli’s contribution, then, was to effectively connect Prince’s creative vision without having to resort to the brutality and nihilism depicted in Prince’s initial treatment. Prince’s own journey into self-discovery, his wrestling with the demons of his past and finding the healing power of music, are themes which still very much resonate in the movie without the alienating interpretation of gun violence and explicitly violent nods to suicide.

Prince, who was always guarded and elusive, was already skilled at affecting an on-stage persona that would depend on an album’s overall theme and symbols.

A Brief Cinematic History of Purple Rain 2
Still from Purple Rain movie

With a director in place production could move forward on the project. At this point in the production process the movie’s title changed from Dreams to Purple Rain, at Prince’s insistence. Prince also hired an acting coach named Don Amendolia and a dance choreographer named John Command to work with him and the other band members in order to improve their performances by the time the cameras rolled. Amendolia particularly praised Prince’s ability to “flip right out of his persona and be whatever character he had to be.” Prince, who was always guarded and elusive, was already skilled at affecting an on-stage persona that would depend on an album’s overall theme and symbols, much in the same way that fellow rock/pop star David Bowie—who was known to equally mysterious and evasive about his personal life, stating many times that the pseudonym of ‘David Bowie’ the rock god was an entirely different person that David Jones the family man—was able to change permutations of identity. Touré discusses this aspect of the Prince mythology in his book I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon:

So, just as he’s demonstrated a rare fluidity to slide between rock, soul, pop, and funk, a sonic code switching that has helped him defy categorization and rise to the top of segregated music industry, Prince has also used his fluency in a plethora of identity idioms to break free from the conventions and scrictures of Black male identity. Prince becomes successful because his message is so attractive to so many; that identity is fluid, that gender and race are not defined by boxes, but are malleable enough to let someone sit inside and outside of them at the same time and be whatever they want to be.

Touré: I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon

Prince, then, had the advantage in that he was already fluent in being able to change and adopt different identities as required for each of his album’s thematic concerns, naturally lending itself to at least a reasonable adoption of ‘the Kid’ character in the movie. Although Revolution guitarist Wendy Melvoin does carp on the fact that “We’re not talking about a brilliant thespian film here, it’s just a rock ‘n’ roll movie, no one had to go too far from themselves.”

Depictions of domestic violence

While Purple Rain does at the very least represent an emotional biography of Prince’s life at that point, the true nature of his relationship with his father, named Francis (Clarence Williams III) in the movie, remains murky and ambiguous. Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson protests, “The fact is, my daddy’s never owned a gun,” so that aspect of the movie was fictionalized. Prince himself has also both denied the domestic violence that occurs in the movie, but also alludes to domestic violence in his memoir The Beautiful Ones.

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Still from Purple Rain movie

As for the movie Purple Rain Prince has declared: “I didn’t write Purple Rain. Someone else did. And it was a story, a fictional story, and should be perceived that way and nothing else.” Yet in his memoir The Beautiful Ones, Prince discusses that “After several breakdowns in communication & even occasional violence, my mother & father divorced. So Prince has alternated his biographical details, more switching of identity idioms to suit his needs, but Purple Rain can at least be considered an emotional biography in that it depicts certain aspects of his life that he was going through, but not necessarily a strictly literal interpretation of events. Wendy Melvoin comments “It was definitely a case of art imitating life. It was so funny that the first time we heard the voiceover on the trailer saying ‘Before Prince made the music, he lived it,’ because it was so true.” So Purple Rain would end up being marketed as being biographical in nature. The genre of the biographical movie is also one that tends to play fast and loose with facts anyways, further blurring the boundaries. A prime example of this is Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) which plays so fast and loose with singer Freddie Mercury’s life as to border on the outright fictional, despite pretenses of being biographical. But former sound engineer Peggy McCreary observes, “That’s him. He didn’t write it, but that’s him in Minneapolis. It’s a dramatization—he’s not that neurotic. He’ll listen to things—but that is kind of his life.”

Purple Rain can at least be considered an emotional biography in that it depicts certain aspects of his life that he was going through, but not necessarily a strictly literal interpretation of events.

Purple Rain and Generation X

For Generation X, who were living with the issues of nuclear war, dysfunctional families, systemic racism, gender issues, and corrupt institutions of power, Prince’s dark and violent world of broken homes and suicidal impulses connected with us and acted as a guide. Joseph Vogel in This Thing Called Life: Prince, Race, Sex, Religion, and Music extrapolates on this idea by connecting Prince—who was considered to be apolitical—with the idea that the personal is the political and that it is through his depictions of generational conflict that Prince achieves his most effective cultural impact: “Prince was, of course, profoundly radical on an individual level, in terms of both his identity and his art. Indeed, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Prince ushered in a new paradigm for the political artist, less about odes to the working class, than about personal empowerment, freedom, creativity, and pleasure. Prince’s glam-rock individualism was about doing what you wanted, when you wanted, how you wanted.” Although Dave Hill in Prince: A Pop Life mocks the movie for its “meticulously manicured pain,” it did impact how people dressed, how they expressed themselves, and, I would argue, contributed to an image positive Black male sexuality and identity through the Kid’s eventual epiphany in the movie’s final moments. Purple Rain connected deeply with Generation X who were dealing with a whole host of societal and generational issues. Even if not a literal translation of Prince’s early life, Purple Rain was authentic enough to embody Generation X’s experiences at the time.

For Generation X, who were living with the issues of nuclear war, dysfunctional families, systemic racism, gender issues, and corrupt institutions of power, Prince’s dark and violent world of broken homes and suicidal impulses connected with us and acted as a guide.

The cultural resonance of Purple Rain is why the movie, which was expected to be a cult hit at best, was soon expanded beyond the select few theaters to 1,022 screens. In effect July 1984 began the summer of Prince. The synthesis of the music video aesthetic with a modern interpretation of the rock musical in a radically new way. While Purple Rain was criticized at the time for its soap opera approach to drama (not to mention its chauvinistic tendencies), critics and audiences alike found value in its music video aesthetics and musical performances. Judged by the questionable lineage of a rock film (one only has to look at Elvis movies like Girl Happy [1966] to see how low the bar is for rock musicals) the movie does succeed as a creative effort and showcases Prince’s musical talent. More importantly, Purple Rain was a rock musical that featured a Black artist front and center as a marquee player, which was certainly groundbreaking at the time.

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Still from Purple Rain movie

Purple Rain also made an impact on the music video format, the rock musical as a genre, inspired fashion trends, Generation X, hip hop (and in particular the current trend of hip hop stars getting their own biopics), broke racial barriers, emphasized individuality, and presented the rock/pop star as a totality of artistry, not just as purely a commercial music act. Prince altered the pop culture landscape, and the movie Purple Rain essentially popularized the music video format that was already in existence but that was not nearly as culturally significant at that point. MTV, which in the 1980s was the most successful venue for music videos, had only come into existence three years prior. And even then, Black music artists were not in regular rotation at MTV—with the notable exceptions of Prince and Michael Jackson—a facet of their channel that was heavily criticized by journalists (and David Bowie) at the time. This means that Purple Rain’s commercial success occurred at a time in music video history when Black artists were being ignored by the industry.

Just as significant as its role in Black cinema is Purple Rain’s use of the music video aesthetic. The heavy use of music in movies was certainly a trend that was occurring at the time, with movies like Flashdance (1984) creating a few popular music singles. Purple Rain as a film broke ground in terms of the marketing, promotion, and career trajectories of not only later rock and pop stars, but also in terms of its cultural import.

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About the author

Douglas Rasmussen

Douglas Rasmussen was born on the Canadian prairies, but his maternal grandfather originally was born in Prince's home state of Minnesota.

He has a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Saskatchewan where he majored in American Literature and Film Studies and wrote his thesis on the AMC TV series Breaking Bad. He has published articles on Canadian History and Virginia Woolf, and has chapters in upcoming collections of critical essays on various Film Studies topics to be published in 2020. Discussing film is his first love, but any time he has a chance to discuss Prince, David Bowie, or Tom Waits, he is more than happy to do so.

You can follow him at @grumpybookgeek on Twitter.

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