Prince’s movie legacy: Will there ever be another like ‘Purple Rain’?


It feels strange to write an item about The Kid on the day he died. But Prince was in many ways about immortality -- his music was timeless, his face never seemed to age -- so perhaps there’s something apt about it too.

The Kid was, of course, the character Prince played in his 1984 musical-drama film “Purple Rain.” The film told a story of a brash Minnesota musician with a rough domestic life and some contentious relationships at First Avenue, the club he called his creative home. As The Kid leads a group called the Revolution, there is much intra-band and inter-club squabbling -- partly owing to the Kid not giving female musicians their due (ironic given Prince’s preternaturally progressive tendency to do just that over the course of his career).

The movie builds to the cathartic finish that’s one of the great musical moments ever committed to celluloid. The Kid performs an epic rendition of the title song, from the speak-song verses to the anthemic hook of the chorus, then tries to sneak out before being called back by awestruck fans. As a viewer, you knew a legend had been made before The Kid even got back to the club.


A great piece of screenwriting and direction the movie is not (Albert Magnoli, who for a time also worked as Prince’s manager, was behind the camera, the only time in Prince’s intermittent acting career he didn’t carry those duties himself). But the music was the star, and the man who delivered it its chosen vehicle. Prince was the reason you saw and loved “Purple Rain” -- as a way to understand this burgeoning musician, and a way for a burgeoning musician to show us his music. Heck, even the way he got mad in the film was theatrical. (There’s a swear word in this clip if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing, but c’mon, it’s Prince; even the curses are artistic.)

Though we didn’t know it at the time, the film began to suggest the complex dynamic between Prince and his fans, that very rare ability to be both a megastar and someone with whom fans could feel a close personal connection. (David Bowie had it too.) Those who didn’t have this affiliation with Prince or Bowie may be confused, gazing upon social media, as to why so many people today are reacting the way they are, are shedding so many tears. What they may not realize is the extent to which fans felt that these artists, for all their global celebrity, were speaking directly to them -- how the fans’ adoration is even what fueled that celebrity: “No need to worry/No need to cry/I’m your messiah and you’re the reason why,” as the lyric from “I Would Die 4 U” has it.

People call “Purple Rain” a cult hit. But it took in nearly $70 million at the box office and was the 11th-highest grossing movie of the year -- ahead of “Amadeus,” “The Natural” and “Revenge of the Nerds.” In 2016 dollars, it topped $155 million. But the cult-film designation is telling. Prince was big, but he felt personal.

Like so much Prince did, “Purple Rain” set the tone for other artists. A host of music-themed films -- from “8 Mile” to “That Thing You Do,” “Control” to “Straight Outta Compton” -- took their cues from what “Purple Rain” laid down. (Incidentally, Warner Bros. had to be persuaded to release the movie by Prince and other personalities; the studio worried it was too risque. You can add a slightly greater willingness to roll the dice on racy content to “Purple Rain’s” legacy too.)

But much of “Purple’s Rain’s” influence goes beyond cinema. The film fed a smash album that came out around the same time -- with its influential songs like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U,” “When Doves Cry,” “Darling Nikki” and the epic final/title track -- which in turn would feed his concerts. I saw Prince perform in the mid-2000s, and the power of “Purple Rain” as the concert closer was as strong, and as cinematic, as when it appeared in the movie two decades before. Even a cut scene from the film made its way into our musical consciousness, via “Raspberry Beret” the next year.

Prince was doing synergy long before it was corporate. He was doing it the right way, not by jamming in references because of some financial arrangement, but through his massive medium-spanning output, by suggesting that his albums and his movies and his live performances were all of the same creative wellspring. And “Purple Rain” was in many ways the beginning and the epicenter of that trend.


“Purple Rain” was a movie, but it was also a concert experience, and it was also the world’s best teaser to a great record. It wasn’t one thing or another, but inclusive of a number of different elements, just as Prince -- genre-hopping, gender-fluid -- was himself. The title song moves from a melancholic blues to a rip-roaring stadium-guitar finish, with a soul falsetto along the way, and the arc of the property was equally surprise-filled.

Prince in concert was a sight to behold. But “Purple Rain,” as a film, offered something different: a cult of personality. On a movie (and, especially, a television) screen, the music could be more intimate, but the star larger than life. It seems contradictory, but Prince managed to do both.

“I never meant to cause you any sorrow/I never meant to cause you any pain/I only wanted one time to see you laughing/I only wanted to see you/Laughing in the purple rain,” he sings at the start of the number, the Kid delighting his fans both in the club and at the multiplex. On the day of his death, it seems right to be feeling all of those emotions.

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