SCENES FROM THE REVOLUTION
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
WHEN SELF-PROCLAIMED “SUPERSTAR
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.