It’s difficult to fathom that we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of Prince’s classic film and soundtrack, Purple Rain. But to differentiate the movie from the music is impossible, because it’s not really a film at all, per se.
To me, Purple Rain, in its entirety, is the best, longest and most important music video that accompanied the greatest album of the 1980’s. It dropped June 25th, 1984. A month later, the movie opened on July 27th, with Eddie Murphy showing up at the Hollywood premiere wearing a leopard-print blazer that covered his bare chest and a leather bandana draped around his neck. Prince later made his grand entrance, pulling up to the red carpet in a Purple stretch limousine, emerging from the vehicle carrying a single rose.
Prince was in the midst of deconstructing barriers through the revolution of his music, an unexpected upheaval that would bridge gaps and bring joy to diverse and far-reaching sectors of individuals around the globe. As we sit here, 30 years later, the work still remains as fresh, lush, hypnotic and emotional as it was in1984 when it overwhelmed with its simplicity, audacity and eroticism.
Along with the remarkable band, The Revolution, Prince powerfully blended Pop, Rock and Roll, Gospel, Punk, Funk, Rhythm and Blues and love ballads in a way that made a farce of radio’s rigid adherence to Black or White musical formats and social concepts.
Few other artists can boast a collection of their greatest hits all assembled in one album, one movie, or one vehicle. But Prince pulled it off in what is popularly regarded as one of the supreme accomplishments in the history of music.
The album earned the Diamond Award from the Recording Industry of America after going platinum 13 times over. In 2007, Vanity Fair named it the best soundtrack of all time. It won two Grammy Awards for Best Rock Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group and Best Album of Original Score Written for a Motion Picture. It nabbed an Oscar for Best Original Song Score. It spawned four top 10 worldwide hits with the singles "When Doves Cry," "Let’s Go Crazy," "Purple Rain," and "I Would Die 4 U."
But Prince was already on my radar because of his dope album, 1999. Released in the fall of 1982, he mesmerized me with his delicious, mid-intercourse rant during the song "Lady Cab Driver" when he accompanies some serious hip-thrusting with a hilarious, thought-provoking and wide-ranging diatribe that included one of my favorite lines ever in music, “This is for why I wasn’t born like my brother, handsome and tall…”
But I wasn’t in any rush to dive into Purple Rain, because my mind was being tickled and nourished at the time by the emerging sounds of hip hop. I was contentedly snapping my neck to cuts like Whodini’s Five Minutes of Funk, the World Famous Supreme Team’s Hey DJ, U.T.F.O’s Roxanne, Roxanne and Run DMC’s Sucker MC’s, with no complaints or desires to expand outside of my comfort zone.
On the R&B side, my attentions were then-centered on the likes of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Rick James, Shalamar, Cheryl Lynn, Debarge, New Edition, Stacy Lattisaw, Yarborough and Peoples, The S.O.S. Band, Stephanie Mills, Patrice Rushen, D-Train and the Gap Band.
But a funny thing happened when I first popped the Purple Rain cassette into my boom box. I heard bits of James Brown, Little Richard, Sly and the Family Stone and other strands of music. Rock and Roll, Country, and genres that I would have previously summarily dismissed.
The minute I heard him announce, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…,” I knew that my musical journey, my thought process, my view of the larger world out there would undergo a radical re-shaping.
From that moment on, everyone else in my music collection, from Michael and Stevie to the Fat Boys and Grandmaster Flash, they all took a momentary back seat to Prince as I became more immersed in the hidden chambers of Purple Rain. The more I listened to it, the more entranced I became.
Within a few weeks, Purple Rain had displaced Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall as my favorite album. I intrinsically knew, through those hypnotic guitar riffs, drum patterns, thoughts conjured up of animals striking curious poses, the dizzying solos, all experienced within my transition to adolescence as a high school freshman; that my world was about to expand in ways that would be awesome, colorful, exciting, loud and unpredictable. I began looking for purple sneakers, shirts or hats that I could incorporate into my wardrobe.
Those thoughts and feelings exploded after I saw the movie, glued to my seat, dumbstruck by the visual manifestation of this astounding music that was produced by this musical genius. The film centered around Prince’s character, The Kid, a young, talented singer and musician on the Minneapolis underground music scene who seems to have the looks, gifts and drive to become a superstar. He falls in love with the gorgeous Apollonia, an aspiring singer and stunning physical specimen. Their rollercoaster relationship and the resulting complications of him following in his own father’s self-destructive, verbally and physically abusive footsteps provide the back story. But the star of the show is the music.
At the time of its release, the film received mixed reviews. Some labeled it a vain attempt by an egomaniacal musician to turn himself into a movie star. Others called it a bizarre drama with terrible acting that was another symptom of American cinema’s addiction to facile mythmaking.
Some looked through the film’s forced dialogue and Prince’s sub-par acting, like Cynthia Kirk of Variety, who wrote, “Playing a character rooted in his own background, and surrounded by the real-life members of his Minneapolis-based musical 'family,' rock star Prince makes an impressive feature film debut in Purple Rain, a rousing contemporary addition to the classic backstage musical genre.”
Underneath my outer mask – which was adorned with shell-toe Adidas sneakers, Kangol hats, suede pumas, a mean arsenal of mother jokes, an unhealthy obsession with Bernard King and the New York Knicks, Levi’s jeans, mock neck sweaters and Georgetown, St. John’s and Syracuse college basketball Starter jackets – I secretly yearned to know what it felt like to be a one-man magnum opus of mind-blowing sex and music that could take people through a wide range of dizzying emotions.
I wanted to be free and confident enough within myself to jump onto a huge, thunderous purple motorcycle wearing purple boots and a tight, crushed velvet purple outfit, with a guitar strapped to my back, with Apollonia’s tender self holding onto me tightly, her arms excitedly, suggestively wrapped around my waist.
"Let’s Go Crazy" pushed me to think about how I wanted to spend my time through life’s journey, working hard and making a difference, yes, but also taking some time to just go nuts, because after all, “In this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld…” And that regardless, to always be mindful of not letting the elevator bring us down. Because you could always push a button to get to a higher floor.
"Take Me With U" made my virginal, yet-to-fall-in-love-self yearn for breathtaking and butterfly inducing romance. And GOOD LAWD, when Prince told Apollonia to purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, my fourteen-year-old life changed considerably for the better. It was not simply because of the most beautiful set of breasts that I’d personally seen to that point, outside of my secret stash of Playboy magazines, but because of the little purple fella’s confidence, mystique and swagger. I wanted to have that type of personal power, poise, self-assurance and buoyancy. He re-defined my definition of cool.
"The Beautiful Ones" taught me that this thing called love could make you lose your mind. When he set it off with, “Baby, baby, baby. What’s it gonna be?” I already knew, without ever having been in that situation, that he was hurting. When he began screaming, I realized that some love letters were written with tears dropping on the page. When he kept screeching, “I want you!” I knew that intense love could turn into some psychotic, irreversible craziness.
"Computer Blue," though it did not garner the acclaim of most of the film’s other songs, was a hidden gem. To this day, I still find myself randomly blurting out, “Wendy? Yes Lisa. Is the water warm enough? Yes Lisa. Shall we begin? Yes Lisa,” even though I have no idea what they’re talking about, or what Computer Blue means.
"Darling Nikki" took my mind many places, snapping it out of its romance-induced fantasies to a place where some wild, uncontrollable sex fiends roamed. I didn’t want my girl to be the one pleasuring herself in a hotel lobby, but I also wondered what it would be like to hang out with one such lady, from time to time.
“When Doves Cry,” to me, is one of the best songs ever produced and Prince’s career-defining accomplishment. It made this young kid from Brooklyn want to hang out in Minneapolis, wear purple blouses, and when I was old enough to sidle up to a bar, tell beautiful women, "Either somebody put something in my drink, or you're the finest mother****** I've seen in ages!"
"I Would Die 4 U," rocked me from the opening line, where he asserted, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand…” Whenever I heard it, I’d ask myself, “Who is this mysterious dude?” Throughout the previous songs, and with his vulnerabilities bared both in his lyrics and actions in the film, this song reminds us how hyped he is about himself, and how much of an enigma he is, one moment saying “I would die for U,” and the next moment telling his screaming fans that he’s their Messiah. Like my man Bumpty said in Grown Ups 2, “Whaaaaaaaaaaat!!!???”
"Baby I’m a Star" became one of my mantras. I repeated the words, “You might not know it now, baby, but I are, I’m a staaaaaar… I don’t wanna stop, til I reach the top….” Whenever life dealt me a blow, I emerged moments later feeling like nothing could stop me.
And of course, "Purple Rain" is one of the most mysterious, beautiful, sad, hypnotic and emotional anthems ever constructed. It combines so many different elements of music, with an arresting combination of guitar, drum, piano and organ elements. It remains one of the most powerful songs, with its gumbo-like blending of Gospel, Rock and Pop, that has ever crossed the threshold of my eardrums. The delivery builds toward such a touching and sensitive climax, it was the anchor of every one of my slow jam tapes back in the day. If I called you on the phone at night and Purple Rain was playing in the background, that meant that my tender teenage emotions were on fire for you.
All of the songs were recorded live, in front of an audience, prior to filming. And there’s an unquantifiable synergy and connection between Prince, The Revolution, the words, the instruments, and the fans.
Purple Rain is powerful, authoritative, robust and formidable. It’s not just a movie or an album, it’s an experience, one that left an ineradicable, enduring impression on American popular culture that still resonates 30 years later. From the fashion, the underappreciated music of Morris Day and The Time, the scene-stealing Jerome, Apollonia’s sexy and erotic single, Sex Shooter, all of it conspired to transform Prince from great musician into a superstar and an icon.
And all these years later, I’m still amazed that, despite the fact that the acting in the film comes nowhere near to matching the power and intensity of the music, the performance scenes elevate the film, along with the struggle of The Kid to reconcile his relationship with his father and the violence and consequences that his actions have wrought, to a place where only the modern day classics reside.
No matter how many times you see the movie or listen to the album, you feel something new, a quantifiable renewal of the spirit.
And Billy the club owner, regardless of how many times I watch it, can tell The Kid, “No one digs your music but yourself,” until he’s purple in the face. Every time I listen to the album and watch the movie, 30 years removed from that first experience, I can’t help but disagree.
Purple Rain, the movie, and its music, initiated a paradigm shift. It changed the game. It took Prince off the fringe, delivering him into the mainstream. And in the process, it changed the world, and specifically my world, for the better.