It was dis­missed as a van­ity project from a pop star with more am­bi­tion than film­mak­ing tal­ent. But Pur­ple Rain went on to knock Ghost­busters from the num­ber one slot and turn its creator, Prince, into a megas­tar



pub­li­cist” Howard Bloom started work­ing with Prince in De­cem­ber 1980, the first thing he did was ask to spend some time with the ris­ing pop star. Bloom specif­i­cally wanted to dis­cover, as he puts it, “the things that had shaped Prince emo­tion­ally”. To that end, he flew to the Shea the­atre in Buf­falo, New York, where the then 22-year-old was re­hears­ing for his Dirty Mind tour, and the two talked through the night. He fi­nally found what he was look­ing for around dawn.

“He told me this story of his mother tak­ing him, at the age of five, to a big the­atre,” says Bloom. “All the seats were pointed at the stage and there was a spot­light on the cen­tre of the stage, and who’s in the spot­light? His dad, on pi­ano. And be­hind his dad were five of the most beau­ti­ful women Prince had ever seen.” While his fa­ther played, the women danced, and the au­di­ence screamed. “And that,” says Bloom, “was when Prince com­mit­ted ev­ery fi­bre of his be­ing to mu­sic.”

In July 1984, 21 years af­ter that defin­ing mo­ment in Prince’s life, Pur­ple Rain shone an even brighter spot­light on Prince him­self, mak­ing him a global su­per­star. Part concert film, part do­mes­tic drama, part au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, it both hu­man­ised the for­merly elu­sive fig­ure and made him an icon. Its suc­cess sur­prised many who had be­lieved the film would sink with­out trace.

The pre­vi­ous year, when his con­tract with Bob Cavallo’s man­age­ment team was due to ex­pire, Prince said he’d re-sign, but on one con­di­tion. He wanted to make a movie. But that wasn’t all. “I want to star in the movie,” he told Cavallo — de­spite the lack of an idea, script, direc­tor or, in­deed, any act­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. “I want my name above the ti­tle, and I want it to be with a ma­jor stu­dio.”

The film in­dus­try thought the idea was ris­i­ble. But Prince’s dis­re­gard for con­ven­tion and con­ser­vatism had got him this far and, as Pur­ple Rain proved, would take him right to the top.

PRINCE’S FIFTH AL­BUM, 1999, HAD BEEN A com­mer­cial break­through, giv­ing him a num­ber six US sin­gle with Lit­tle Red Corvette and an arena tour. Cavallo and his part­ners Steve Fargnoli and Joe Ruf­falo were so keen to keep hold of him, they con­trib­uted some $500,000 de­vel­op­ment funds for his movie, while Prince him­self sup­plied an­other $500,000. A fur­ther $3 mil­lion, taken out of Prince’s al­ready healthy mu­sic roy­al­ties, came from his la­bel, Warner Bros. Records. Cavallo then hired Wil­liam Blinn, who had cre­ated Starsky

& Hutch and was then ex­ec­u­tive-pro­duc­ing the Fame TV series, to write a first draft of the script, ti­tled Dreams.

Cavallo sent it to direc­tor James Fo­ley, who had just made Daryl Hannah drama Reck­less, but at a screen­ing of that film Cavallo met its editor, Al­bert Mag­noli, and gave him the script too. Fo­ley passed, and af­ter read­ing it him­self, Mag­noli told Cavallo he un­der­stood why Fo­ley had turned it down: Dreams was, he said, in­au­then­tic, con­trived, small and un­mu­si­cal. Cavallo asked Mag­noli what he would do. “And for what­ever rea­son,” says Mag­noli now, “I launched into a story. And in ten min­utes I had told a very ex­u­ber­ant story about these bands com­ing to­gether in Min­neapo­lis, and a club and a concert... I was jump­ing up, get­ting ex­cited. I sur­prised my­self and

I sur­prised Bob.”

Cavallo hired him to both write and di­rect. For his the­sis at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Mag­noli had made short film Jazz, which mar­ried mu­sic per­for­mances to drama and won him, in 1981, a Stu­dent Acad­emy Award. A few months be­fore meet­ing Cavallo, he’d heard Prince’s 1999 sin­gle and been in­spired by its “call to arms and lust for life”, recog­nis­ing cin­e­matic po­ten­tial in Prince’s mu­sic and lyrics. So he flew to Min­neapo­lis and pitched him the story in a restau­rant. De­spite hav­ing no prior knowl­edge of Prince’s life, he struck a chord.

Mag­noli’s idea had Prince’s char­ac­ter at odds with his par­ents, his girl­friend and his fel­low mu­si­cians. “He said, ‘Do you know me?’ I asked him what he meant. He said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ And I said, ‘No, all I heard was 1999.’ And he said, ‘Do you know any­thing about my life, have you ever read any­thing?’ I said no. And he said, ‘Then how is it in ten min­utes you tell me my life story?’”

Prince had long had a frac­tious re­la­tion­ship with his fa­ther, a plastic moul­der at a fac­tory by day and a jazz pi­anist at night. He and Prince’s mother di­vorced when Prince was ten, and so be­gan a tur­bu­lent phase in Prince’s life: he moved out of his mother’s home af­ter clash­ing with her new part­ner, then lived with his fa­ther, who kicked Prince out when he was 12 be­cause, as Prince’s cousin Charles Smith told bi­og­ra­pher Alex Hahn in Pos­sessed: The Rise And Fall Of Prince, he’d caught Prince in bed with a girl. Prince later re­called call­ing his fa­ther and beg­ging to be al­lowed back. His fa­ther re­fused. “I sat cry­ing at that phone booth for two hours,” he told Rolling Stone in 1985. Prince ended up liv­ing in his friend’s base­ment, where he be­gan mak­ing mu­sic in earnest.

Stag­gered by the par­al­lels, Prince com­mit­ted to Mag­noli’s vi­sion on the spot. Mag­noli spent Au­gust in Min­neapo­lis re­search­ing the mu­sic scene, get­ting to know Prince and his new band, The Rev­o­lu­tion. “I talked to Prince, learn­ing about times when he and his fa­ther were hav­ing is­sues,” says Mag­noli, whose plot be­came a fic­tion­alised take on Prince’s life. The script had Prince’s char­ac­ter, The Kid, liv­ing in his war­ring par­ents’ base­ment while at­tempt­ing to break into the lo­cal mu­sic scene.

“The char­ac­ter was rooted in a re­al­ity,” in­sists Mag­noli, “but in some cases I went fur­ther with it, like the vi­o­lence.” In­deed, the film found fo­cus in The Kid’s do­mes­tic fric­tion: the fa­ther as­saults his wife and son, who con­tin­ues the cy­cle when he hits his girl­friend. “In [Prince’s] life there wasn’t the vi­o­lence that the film de­picted. It was a men­tal vi­o­lence. Be­ing ig­nored as a child. The vi­o­lence is the phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion of the in­ner tur­moil. In­stead of ev­ery­body be­ing silent and ig­nor­ing him, it ex­plodes in this cat­a­strophic vi­o­lence and it has reper­cus­sions and con­se­quences.” Prince’s tears dur­ing these scenes, says Mag­noli, were real. “I think part of the suc­cess of Pur­ple Rain was that [Prince] did open up and ex­am­ine him­self,” The Rev­o­lu­tion’s Lisa Cole­man told Alan Light for his book Let’s Go Crazy: Prince And The Mak­ing Of Pur­ple Rain. “I don’t think he’s ever done that again.”

With a script and direc­tor in place, Cavallo and Mag­noli set up meet­ings with stu­dios to se­cure more fund­ing and dis­tri­bu­tion. The first, with Warner Bros., was dis­as­trous. Ex­ec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent Mark Can­ton asked them if they’d con­sider John Tra­volta play­ing The Kid. Mag­noli said no. The ex­ec­u­tives also had con­cerns about the script’s sex­ism — at one point a woman is thrown into a dump­ster — and were wor­ried that the film, with its fe­male nu­dity, eroti­cism and swear­ing, would re­quire an un­com­mer­cial R rat­ing. Mag­noli re­fused to com­pro­mise. It was an au­then­tic take on what he’d found on the scene in Min­neapo­lis, he in­sisted. “We left cor­dial, but it was tense. And it was re­peated four more times at dif­fer­ent stu­dios.”

A week later, though, Can­ton called Cavallo, apol­o­gised for the neg­a­tiv­ity, and asked him and Mag­noli to come back in and pitch to Warner Bros. chair­men Bob Daly and Terry Semel. They loved the pitch and green­lit it, with an even­tual bud­get of $7.2 mil­lion — roughly the same amount Para­mount had just given Foot­loose, a sur­pris­ing amount for such a risky ven­ture.

THE 42-DAY SHOOT BE­GAN IN MIN­NEAPO­LIS on Oc­to­ber 31, 1983. Sub-zero tem­per­a­tures and heavy snow pushed production back a few days, and dur­ing the scene in which Apol­lo­nia skinny dips in a lake, she passed out, later re­lat­ing on a Min­neapo­lis ra­dio sta­tion that she’d suf­fered hy­pother­mia. “Ev­ery­thing started to fade to black,” she re­called, “and I just thought to my­self, ‘Oh no, God, I don’t want to die now!... And then Prince came in. He held me, and he said, ‘Please don’t die...’ He saved me, with his warmth and his love and com­pas­sion.”

The per­for­mances were all filmed in seven days; Prince would do only one or two takes of each song, ea­ger to per­form as if it was a real concert. In Alan Light’s Let’s Go Crazy, Prince’s then-girl­friend Su­san­nah Melvoin says the star was chang­ing di­a­logue on set, “writ­ing the script him­self”, al­though Mag­noli dis­putes this. “I had an open-door policy. Peo­ple would come in and talk to me about their scenes, so I was con­stantly mak­ing changes. Not once was Prince writ­ing or dic­tat­ing any­thing.” There’s no doubt Prince was un­com­pro­mis­ing in his search for per­fec­tion and cre­ative free­dom, and Howard Bloom be­lieves he would have di­rected Pur­ple Rain him­self if he could have: “In all prob­a­bil­ity he hired Al­bert be­cause Al­bert could be used the way a sculp­tor uses a chisel.”

Power strug­gles aside, Bloom had the ut­most faith in Prince’s vi­sion and stepped in when the film be­came jeop­ar­dised in post-production. Dur­ing the early stages of edit­ing, Cavallo and Mag­noli were sum­moned to a meet­ing, where stu­dio mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tives told them that re­search in­di­cated Pur­ple Rain would not hit big. “They said,” re­calls Mag­noli, still ex­as­per­ated to­day, “that the only peo­ple who were go­ing to be in­ter­ested in the movie would be ‘ur­ban’ girls un­der the age of 14” — “ur­ban” in this in­stance be­ing a sus­pect eu­phemism for an African Amer­i­can au­di­ence.

A stu­dio screen­ing of an early cut brought fur­ther dis­cord. “It was one of the most amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve ever been through,” says Bloom. “The emo­tional power was as­ton­ish­ing.” But in the meet­ing that fol­lowed, all he saw were long faces. “They felt it was dead on ar­rival,” says Bloom of the stu­dio ex­ecs. “You could tell they were ap­palled by this film. One of them said, ‘Let’s open it in six the­atres in Ari­zona.’ And I said, ‘There is no way in hell you can kill this film. It came from the gut of the per­former him­self, and that has never been done. And if you kill this film you are killing a piece of his­tory.’”

Bloom’s pas­sion proved ef­fec­tive, and af­ter fur­ther talks Warner Bros. agreed to re­lease the film in 100 cine­mas. The stu­dio then ar­ranged test screen­ings for au­di­ences in Cal­i­for­nia; each time, the crowd danced and screamed and laughed, says Mag­noli. At one in San Diego, Bloom snuck in jour­nal­ists from

Rolling Stone, the LA Times and Newsweek, who all ran gush­ing early re­views. Warner Bros., still not con­vinced, ar­ranged a fi­nal screen­ing in the res­o­lutely un-‘ur­ban’ Texas, and when the film played well there, de­cided to re­lease it in 1,000 cine­mas.

Pur­ple Rain came out on July 27, 1984, and knocked Ghost­busters off the top spot — an in­cred­i­ble coup. The movie went on to bag a boun­ti­ful $68.4 mil­lion at the US box of­fice, and was the 11th big­gest re­lease that year. It also se­cured Prince a num­ber one al­bum, a slew of hit sin­gles, two Gram­mys, an Os­car (for Best Orig­i­nal Song), and a sta­dium tour.

The film’s suc­cess fu­elled Prince’s cin­e­matic ap­petite, and he went on to make two more — 1986’s Un­der The Cherry Moon, and 1990’s Graf­fiti Bridge. In both in­stances, though, he di­rected him­self, to con­sid­er­ably lesser de­grees of suc­cess. Com­pared to

Pur­ple Rain they lacked co­her­ence, en­ergy and cin­e­matic power. They flopped. Af­ter that, Prince fo­cused ev­ery­thing back on his mu­sic. He may have quit film­mak­ing, but he never slowed down.

JUST TWO DAYS AF­TER PRINCE’S DEATH, on April 23, Mag­noli went to see Pur­ple Rain at his lo­cal cin­ema in Santa Mon­ica. “It was packed,” says an emo­tional Mag­noli. “All the shows have been sold out. It was a fes­tive at­mos­phere, ev­ery­body was recit­ing di­a­logue, singing along. It was a joy­ous cel­e­bra­tion of a mas­sive tal­ent.”

In the weeks that fol­lowed, af­ter the AMC chain had re-re­leased it quickly, Pur­ple Rain was ev­ery­where: the film’s images on mag­a­zine cov­ers, the songs on heavy ra­dio ro­ta­tion, and the likes of Bruce Spring­steen and Aretha Franklin cov­er­ing the ti­tle track at gigs. That song it­self

re­turned to the top of the US sin­gles chart, while the al­bum hit num­ber two in the al­bum chart. Pur­ple Rain is, it seems, big­ger than ever.

“I knew what the film’s im­pact was,” says Mag­noli, “be­cause peo­ple have come up to me over the last 30 years telling me, ‘That film changed my life.’ ‘That film made me leave my par­ents.’ ‘That film made me change my boyfriend/girl­friend.’ And see­ing it in the the­atre again af­ter all these years, and see­ing the en­ergy of the au­di­ence, it threw me back to those early days when we were try­ing to con­vince the stu­dio peo­ple that it was a cross­over movie. No-one could have pre­dicted it.”

No-one, that is, ex­cept Prince.

Top: Prince as The Kid. Mid­dle: Then vir­tual un­known Apol­lo­nia Kotero as Apol­lo­nia. Above: The Kid stays in the pic­ture.

Apol­lo­nia, Prince and his iconic cus­tomised 1981 Honda CM400A.

Top: The Kid and Apol­lo­nia im­mersed in the colour scheme. Above: Prince at the 1985 Os­cars with Wendy and Lisa from The Rev­o­lu­tion. Right: The Kid and his fa­ther (Clarence Williams III) come to blows.

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