‘Purple Rain’ at 30: Why It’s the Musical That Defined the ’80s

Purple Rain Prince

When it premiered on July 27, 1984, the rock drama “Purple Rain” announced the arrival of a major movie star in Prince Rogers Nelson, a flamboyant 26-year-old musician better known by the royal mononym Prince. Already a multi-platinum recording artist, Prince’s feature debut grossed a whopping $70 million in the U.S., while its Grammy winning soundtrack spent six consecutive months atop the Billboard charts. On the 30th anniversary of its release, here’s why “Purple Rain” remains the crowning musical film of our time.

The Album
Included in The Library of Congress’s National Registry of recordings deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important,” this era-defining collection of hits sounds as fresh today as it did three decades ago. From the joyful exuberance of “Let’s Go Crazy” to the bittersweet sorrow of the classic title track, the film’s music became the soundtrack of a generation.

The Kid
While most newcomers may have chosen a safer character to play their first time out, Prince took a chance by portraying his on-screen alter-ego, The Kid, as a deeply troubled, self-destructive artist spiraling out of control. And yet those same dark qualities made audiences root for him. By the time he’s redeemed on stage during the climactic performance, the risk made perfect sense.

The fledgling cable channel was only three years old when “Purple Rain” took it by storm in the summer of ‘84. Early on, notably few black artists were featured in its rotation. Prince, along with fellow trailblazer Michael Jackson, helped break the perceived color barrier. Before long, videos and behind-the-scenes footage from “Purple Rain” ran virtually day and night.

Director Albert Magnoli
With only an award winning short to his credit, Albert Magnoli was personally tapped by Prince to helm his debut feature. Working as director, writer and editor, Magnoli ushered “Purple Rain” into theaters eleven months later, where it unseated “Ghostbusters” from number one at the box office. The director and star collaborated again in 1987 on the concert film “Sign ‘o’ the Times.”

Morris Day
Part antagonist, part comic relief, the lead singer of the dance-funk ensemble The Time managed the near-impossible task of stealing scenes from the charismatic Prince. Dapperly dressed and hilariously profane, Day’s energetic performance of “Jungle Love” is one of the highlights of the film. 17 years later, he reprised the song in Kevin Smith’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.”

Though her role was originally written for pop star Vanity, and then offered to Jennifer Beals, 25-year-old Apollonia Kotero provided Prince with a believable love interest, something that his future co-stars Kristin Scott Thomas (“Under the Cherry Moon”) and Ingrid Chavez (“Graffiti Bridge”) were unable to offer. Razzie nomination aside, her sunny presence humanized the hero.

The Sex
Between the hardcore lyrics of “Darling Nikki” and a custom-built guitar that literally ejaculates fluid onto the audience during the film’s climax, “Purple Rain” pushed erotic boundaries to the limit. The love scenes between Prince and Apollonia proved so intense that the MPAA reportedly rated the film X, before several seconds were trimmed to earn it an R.

The Style
Designed by Marie France, who’d previously collaborated with Prince on several music videos, the costumes in “Purple Rain” mixed an androgynous punk aesthetic with the ruffle and lace of 18th century French royalty. Dynamically lensed by cinematographer Donald Thorin, the film’s rich color palette of deep black, blinding white and spectral violet gave it a look like no other.

Minneapolis, MN
Shot on location in and around Prince’s Midwestern hometown, “Purple Rain” eschewed the glamour of Manhattan and the glitz of Los Angeles in favor of a working class setting that grounded the semi-autobiographical film in gritty reality. Eminem took a page from its book 18 years later by filming “8 Mile” in his birthplace of inner-city Detroit, Michigan.

The Purple Motorcycle
Like Peter Fonda’s red-white-and-blue chopper in “Easy Rider,” or Steve McQueen’s fence-jumping Triumph in “The Great Escape,” Prince’s customized Honda with purple front-shield and hot pink inserts was more than just a means of transportation. Featured prominently on the film’s poster and the album’s cover, it’s among the most iconic movie motorcycles of all time.

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  1. George says:

    Name a contemporary musical that is better than Purple Rain.
    Can’t do it, because there is none.

    Prince absolutely hit it out of the park with his film debut. The best musician there has ever been, and was a huge part of why the 1980’s were so good.

    I really hope he releases the deluxe version of Purple Rain.
    Hopefully all track will be in their complete extended form. If possible, include the complete concert at First Avenue, where he played Purple Rain, and a bunch of tracks that would later appear in the feature film.

  2. Lisa says:

    Epic. Defined a great time for a lot of us who were growing up in the 80’s. I hope Prince will put out a commemorative album for Purple Rain that has been talked about, it would mean a lot to his fans. I had hoped that for the 30th the movie would be rereleased but it doesn’t look like that’s happening.

  3. Jules says:

    One of my most favorite films of all time. Not sure why, I just love it.

  4. This was a wonderful summary of Prince’s movie and the milieu it was filmed in. I recall being so thrilled when he collected all those Oscars, on Acadamy Awards Night! I wish we could see more of Prince, and more creative films from him.

  5. big daddy D says:

    One of the best musicals of all time. Purple Rain WAS the 80s!

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