Thirty years later, how does Prince’s Purple Rain stand up?
The first-time filmmaker Albert Magnoli was in a fix. His debut film needed a montage to emphasise the emotional stakes at a crucial point in the story, and what he really required was a killer song from his movie’s star to tie it all together.
“I told Prince that it was about his father, his mother, loss, redemption, salvation – all the themes we were dealing with in the film,” Magnoli remembered. “The next morning, he called and said: ‘Okay, I got two songs.’”
One of the was a pleading romantic number called When Doves Cry, its guiding bassline stripped away to leave only a vague sense of discomfort behind. Purple Rain – the autobiographical backstage musical film, and the accompanying soundtrack album – was saved.
That album, buoyed by indelible singles like When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy and the epochal title track, would go on to sell 13 million copies, rival Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the album of the decade, and tower like a colossus over the career of one of the great pop singers, guitarists, and iconoclasts of his era. “My albatross,” Prince would later describe it; “it’ll be hanging around my neck as long as I’m making music.”
Alan Light, a music critic and former editor of Spin magazine who fondly remembers staying up until midnight as a teenager in Cincinnati to record new Prince singles off the radio, argues in Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain for the continued significance of Prince’s masterpiece as an emblem of a less splintered popular culture: “It seems likely that we will never again agree on anything the way we agreed on Purple Rain.”
In 1983, Prince was a successful musician with a devoted following and a fistful of hits like 1999, but was hardly an icon at the level of Michael Jackson or Bruce Springsteen. The idea of starring in his own autobiographical film, one that Prince himself guaranteed would be bigger than Saturday Night Fever, was quixotic at best. Prince’s representatives showed the script, written by Magnoli and William Blinn, to Warner Brothers. The label’s development team hated the story, which they considered unabashedly misogynist.
The idea of a big-budget musical starring a racially and sexually ambiguous, erotically fixated Minneapolis musician with a devoted but hardly enormous following was not an automatic green light in Hollywood. But as Light argues, “the album and the film were also perfectly in tune with the time and place in which they were created, and their triumph was partly the result of impeccable timing and circumstances that could never be repeated or replicated”. Light touches briefly on the impact of MTV on 1980s popular culture, but the music-video channel’s reluctant opening of its doors to African-American performers after the enormous success of Thriller was an essential factor in the later success of Purple Rain.
Purple Rain, album and film, reflected MTV back to itself, its vision of hulking tough guys standing shoulder-to-shoulder with mascara-wearing New Wavers a fever dream of cross-genre musical harmony. Prince’s music itself evoked a similar unstated fantasy, his soul and funk rhythms accentuated by guitar heroics and a familiarly rock ’n’ roll band aesthetic. Prince was everyone and no one, all at once, and his audiences were a prototype for the post-race, post-gender, post-everything America that has yet to become a reality.
Magnoli may have been the director, but Prince was Purple Rain’s unquestioned auteur. The film’s dramatic and emotional heft stem from the sheer force of his live performances, which tower over the rest of Purple Rain, leaving its dramatic sequences feeling even more inept than they might otherwise. Purple Rain the film triumphed, despite all its numerous flaws, because of Purple Rain the album. And Purple Rain the album triumphed because Prince stepped beyond the rubbery funk of his first few albums and embraced guitar wizardry and epic balladry. The album was compact and spacious all at once, encompassing the tightly compressed pop of Let’s Go Crazy and the vast yearning of Purple Rain.
Prince had initially asked Stevie Nicks to compose lyrics for Purple Rain, writing them himself only when she respectfully declined. And he was so concerned about potentially ripping off another recent radio hit that he called Journey’s keyboardist and played the song over the telephone, in order to make sure that the band would not take umbrage at the similarities between Purple Rain and their Faithfully. Purple Rain is the great ballad of the 1980s in part because Prince embraced his inner arena-rock god.
Light is compelled, by virtue of his book’s structure, to treat two wildly different works as one and the same. On the one hand, we have Prince’s album, which Light quotes comedian Chris Rock as comparing favourably as a filler-free pop masterpiece even with Thriller: “There’s no Baby Be Mine on Purple Rain.” On the other hand, there is Magnoli’s film, part pop-idol hagiography, part concert film, part skin flick, part Abbott and Costello routine. Both feature some of Prince’s most classic musical work, but only one of them uses the sight of a woman being tossed bodily into a dumpster as a comedic routine between numbers. Light is in festive mode with Let’s Go Crazy – the book’s jacket announces that it is “celebrating 30 years of Purple Rain” – and this requires treating a disposable movie tie-in, heralded by The New York Times’s Vincent Canby as “probably the flashiest album cover ever to be released as a movie”, as a classic.
Let’s Go Crazy is alert to Prince’s complexities (spiritual and erotic, solo and collective, open and closed), as well as the particular possibilities of 1984, when future African-American superstars like Michael Jordan, Oprah Winfrey and Eddie Murphy burst into the mainstream, but the book’s latter half is too consumed by irrelevant matters like Apple’s famous Macintosh commercial of that year. Light is a light-fingered and amusing guide, but occasionally loses sight of the main thrust of his narrative.
Light would have been better served expanding the scope of his look at Prince. In celebrating Purple Rain, Light feels compelled to portray the remainder of Prince’s career – all 30 years and counting of it – as a diminishment. Purple Rain was so big, Light argues, that Prince aimed to shrink his audience, and his appeal, in order to stay sane. Let’s Go Crazy comes to a conclusion with the release of Prince’s next album, Around the World in a Day, which included the hit single Raspberry Beret but little else to tempt Purple Rain’s tens of millions of fans. But Prince’s last album before 1999 had also been eccentric and off-putting, because Prince was less a hitmaker than an auteur, a painter sometimes working on a vast, crowd-pleasing canvas, and sometimes choosing not to.
Prince’s career after Purple Rain would include magnificent works like 1987’s Sign O’ the Times and 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls, as well as more than a few songs pulled out of his legendarily voluminous vaults that probably should have stayed there. Purple Rain is perhaps Prince’s most consistent album in a career devoted, above all, to glorious inconsistency. Let’s Go Crazy celebrates one of the pinnacles of Prince’s achievement as a musician, but the magic of Prince, as with so many other performers whose careers span decades, is to be found in the valleys, as well.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community