How Prince Went Supernova With ‘Purple Rain’
Prince's fifth album, 1982's 1999, brought him his first Top 10 hit, delivering a commercial breakthrough that vindicated years of artistic struggle. It would have been easy to play it safe with the follow-up, but instead of worrying about another hit, Prince went for broke, using what he called his "emotional autobiography" as the inspiration for a film and soundtrack project that could have ended his career just as it was really getting started.
The rest, of course, is history. Released to record stores on June 25, 1984, and arriving in theaters a little over a month later, Purple Rain cemented Prince's status as one of the more talented artists in the business, sending five cross-format smashes to Top 40 radio while the movie racked up more than $80 million at the box office. By the time he returned 10 months later with his next LP, Around the World in a Day, Prince was a certified superstar.
While it may have seemed like overnight success to much of middle America, he'd had years to plot his global domination. "I worked a long time under a lot of different people, and most of the time I was doing it their way," he mused in a 1985 radio interview. "I mean, that was cool, but you know, I figured if I worked hard enough and kept my head straight, one day I'd get to do this on my own, and that's what happened. So I feel like if I don't try to hurt nobody, and like I say, keep my head on straight... my way usually is the best way."
That attitude was a familiar one for execs at Prince's longtime label, Warner Bros. Records. "I had creative control," he told the Guardian while looking back on his Purple Rain period. "We had to fight for over a year before I even got signed. So whatever I turned in, they had to accept. They weren't even allowed to speak to me."
It isn't uncommon for an artist to try and shut out his label, but Prince wasn't just tight-lipped around the people signing the checks. "For the first two years that I worked with him, Prince never talked to any of us," admitted keyboardist Matt Fink. "Once he started talking about his life with his parents. He mentioned something about having a tough time. Then he suddenly realized what he was doing and clammed up. That was two and a half years ago. We never heard about his personal life again."
Somewhat ironically, it was Prince's personal life that ended up providing the grist for the 'Purple Rain' screenplay. While not strictly autobiographical, the movie borrows from his experiences growing up in Minneapolis, with most of the roles filled by the musicians in his circle – playing "characters" with their real names and acting out (occasionally thinly) fictionalized versions of real-life situations.
While the acting may not have been up to the usual Hollywood standards, the whole thing was still rooted in real memories of somewhat trying times. "The radio was dead, the discos was dead, ladies was kinda dead, so I felt like, if we wanted to make some noise, and I wanted to turn anything out, I was gonna have to get something together," he stated simply, when asked about his youth. "Which is what we did."
Former manager Bob Cavallo saw the Purple Rain movie as just one more manifestation of Prince's growing ambition. As he remembered it, he found out about it after calling his partner, Steve Fargnoli, and asking him to start negotiating a renewal of their management contract. "'Steve, there's about a year left on our deal, mention to Prince that we'd like to re-up.' A day or so later I get a response: 'He'll only sign with us if he gets a major motion picture. It has to be with a studio – not with some drug dealer or jeweler financing. And his name has to be above the title. Then he'd re-sign with us.' He wasn't a giant star yet. I mean, that demand was a little over the top."
"A movie is a little bit more complex, but to me it's just a larger version of an album," Prince argued. "There are scenes and there are songs, and they all go together to make this painting, and ... I'm the painter. Y'all is the paintees."
Watch Prince and the Revolution Perform 'When Doves Cry'
Screenwriter William Blinn, who'd worked as executive producer of the Fame television series, later explained: "I went to Hollywood, where Prince was putting together final touches on a video. Met him at an Italian restaurant in Hollywood. What I remember more than anything was that he was the only person I had ever seen in my life who had pasta and orange drink. I didn't get it then, I don't get it now, but what the hell. He had definite ideas of what he wanted to do – a generalized story line, broad strokes. It wasn't his life, but it was about his life. Not that it was wall-to-wall docu-drama, but he knew where he'd come from, and he wanted the movie to reflect that."
"We used parts of my past and present to make the story pop more, but it was a story," Prince later insisted. It was a story whose details had been at least partially sketched in by director Albert Magnoli, who recalled coming up with ideas after meeting Prince in a hotel lobby. "He didn’t know who I was, he didn’t see me. ... I ended up filling [in] the whole story based on him walking across the lobby. Because what I saw was extreme vulnerability, in spite of all the bluster and the costume and the music. This was a vulnerable young man. I saw all the heart and soul. I saw all the emotional stuff. I saw the tragedy of his upbringing. I just saw stuff and felt stuff that filled in the three-act story."
As the movie started coming together, Prince worked on the soundtrack with his band the Revolution, comprised of guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboard players Lisa Coleman and Matt Fink, bassist Brown Mark, and drummer Bobby Z. While Fink, Z., and Melvoin and Coleman (more commonly referred to as Wendy and Lisa) had appeared on previous recordings, the Purple Rain sound was denser – and more rock-inflected – than Prince's earlier efforts. As later evidenced by the Revolution's co-performing credit on the Purple Rain album cover, his usual one-man-band approach had shifted toward something resembling a real group scenario.
The Revolution's influence extended to everything from songwriting to tracking, helping alter the album's sound in subtle (and not-so-subtle) ways. "Prince came in with the melody and the words and an idea of what the verses were like. I came up with the opening chords, and everybody started playing their parts," Melvoin recalled of writing the title track. Added Z, "My first reaction was, 'Wow, this is almost a country song.' It had a different feel than anything we'd been rehearsing for the rest of the album. I realize now it was probably, in his mind, the centerpiece of the story. But that's Prince – his ability to thread the needle, so to speak."
And while Prince has been quick to admit he's something of a musical tyrant in band situations, he didn't try to disguise the Revolution's impact on the music. "Bobby Z was the first one to join. He's my best friend. Though he's not such a spectacular drummer, he watches me like no other drummer would," he told Rolling Stone. "Mark Brown's just the best bass player I know, period. I wouldn't have anybody else. If he didn't play with me, I'd eliminate bass from my music. Same goes for Matt. He's more or less a technician.
"He can read and write like a wiz, and is one of the fastest in the world. And Wendy makes me seem all right in the eyes of people watching. She keeps a smile on her face. When I sneer, she smiles. It's not premeditated, she just does it. It's a good contrast. Lisa is like my sister. She'll play what the average person won't. She'll press two notes with one finger so the chord is a lot larger, things like that. She's more abstract."
Watch Prince and the Revolution Perform 'Let's Go Crazy'
There was little abstract about the way Purple Rain ruled in 1984. Selling more than a million copies in its first week of release, the album acted as a powerful calling card for the film, setting Prince and the Revolution up to grab headlines throughout the summer and making him a lightning rod for conservative activists such as Tipper Gore, who founded the Parents Music Resource Center – the group ultimately responsible for the use of parental advisory stickers on mature-themed albums – partly as a response to the lyrics of the 'Purple Rain' track 'Darling Nikki,' which includes a memorable line about the song's subject getting scandalous with a magazine.
And it wasn't just the lyrics that made Prince a target: The album's broadened musical sound put him under fire from a portion of the audience who felt he was selling out to rock radio and abandoning his funk and R&B roots. It should have been a patently ridiculous allegation to anyone who listened to Purple Rain, but it was also a source of annoyance for him, given how often he'd already had to endure Jimi Hendrix comparisons simply because he was another black artist playing guitar.
"Okay, let's be frank," Prince shot back when confronted with complaints that he "sold out" by recording such a rock-inflected album. "Can we be frank? If we can't do nothing else, we might as well be frank. Seriously, I was brought up in a black-and-white world and, yes, black and white, night and day, rich and poor. I listened to all kinds of music when I was young, and when I was younger, I always said that one day I would play all kinds of music and not be judged for the color of my skin but the quality of my work, and hopefully I will continue. There are a lot of people out there that understand this, 'cause they support me and my habits, and I support them and theirs."
Those controversies, however, ultimately added nothing more than footnotes to the main event, which was one of the more bracingly original mainstream records of the year – if not the decade – and a collection of songs that steamrolled radio straight through to the following spring; the final Purple Rain single, the No. 25 pop hit "Take Me With U," was released in January 1985, followed in May by "Raspberry Beret," the first single from Around the World in a Day. And that record was followed less than a year later by Parade – the soundtrack to yet another Prince film. Brass ring firmly in hand, he was off and running, and although he'd suffer his share of setbacks over the next few years, the remainder of the decade saw him in the midst of an astonishingly successful run.
Maybe the only one who wasn't surprised by it all was Prince himself. "In people's minds, it all boils down to 'Is Prince getting too big for his britches?'" he laughed after Purple Rain conquered the world. "I wish people would understand that I always thought I was bad. I wouldn't have got into the business if I didn't think I was bad."