Edited by Evan Sawdey and Produced by Sarah Zupko
*cue church organ*
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today 2 get through this thing called life …“
… and thus begins one of the greatest pop culture phenomena of our time.
Back in the summer of 1984, Purple Rain was more than just a movie: it was a genuine experience, a transcendent multi-media event that celebrated commercialism and creativity in equal measure, turning a mid-level R&B singer into an overnight superstar and international sex symbol. At one point during that year, Prince had not only the Number One movie in America, but also the Number One album and the Number One single. In fact, when Purple Rain entered the album chart at peak position on August 4th of 1984 (displacing Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., of all things), it wouldn’t vacate that spot until January 19th of the following year.
Yet all these accomplishments wind up leading us to one very simple question: why?
The truth of the matter is simple: Prince picked the perfect time to perfect his art. Though unfairly relegated as a straight-up R&B singer for his first few years, a few people could already pick out the fact that the barely 20-years-old Prince Rogers Nelson had talent that wasn’t exactly easy to classify: aside from the fact that he played every instrument on every album he ever produced, his mixture of genres was remarkably unconventional. 1979’s Prince had numerous hard-rock overtones, and the genre-busting 1980 disc Dirty Mind was a lo-fi explosion of new wave, classic rock, and synth-based soul experiments. With 1982’s 1999, however, Prince had finally found a way to meld his experimental pop tendencies with more “commercial” song structures, resulting in the first two major mainstream hits of his career (the title track and “Little Red Corvette”). Each become substantial radio staples at the expense of absolutely nothing: Prince’s sexually-charged lyrics — always a point of controversy — were still kept front and center, pushing the envelope of what was considered “acceptable” radio play without compromising Prince’s increasingly-insular artistic vision.
During 1999‘s subsequent tour, however, Prince — in the midst of also writing and producing acts like Vanity 6 and Morris Day & the Time — had finally assembled a backing band that could keep up with his own incredible abilities: the Revolution. With drummer Bobby Z., bassist Mark Brown, keyboardist Matt Fink, and guitar/keys duo Wendy Melovin & Lisa Coleman, Prince was finally able to stop worrying about playing everything himself. He had a found a group of creative individuals who were able to open his mind to new sounds and styles. During this time, he also expressed interest in starting a movie project based on his life. After numerous financial hurdles and personnel mishaps (protégé starlet Vanity very famously left the project just prior to filming, leaving Prince to cast the unknown Apollonia Kotero as his own love interest), filming went underway for Prince’s own faux-biopic, starring himself in the lead role and featuring nothing but brand new, completely unheard songs. Even with 1999‘s relative chart success, Warner Bros. was predictably nervous about how the film would fare.
As the multiple hit singles, Grammy wins, and Best Original Song Score Oscar later proved, this was one of those rare gambles that paid off in droves.
Purple Rain is more than just a movie, however, and far more than just an album. The track “When Doves Cry” was a revolutionary, avant-garde single that rewrote the playbook on what pop songs were supposed to sound like. “Darling Nikki” was the track that set Tipper Gore on a personal vendetta to clean up pop music (ultimately resulting in the Parental Advisory stickers that pepper albums to this very day). And that’s not even counting the contributions that Purple Rain made to fashion, the rock-film genre, and sales of purple motorcycles the world over.
Some 25 years after it was released, PopMatters proudly celebrates Purple Rain in its entirety, looking at it from every angle. Over this week, you’ll see a track-by-track dissection of the album, a look at Purple Rain in the context of Prince’s short filmography, analysis of the movie’s effects on the fashion world, that so-called “Minneapolis sound” that the film helped popularize, a deep psychological examination at the supposed rivalry between Prince and Morris Day, the way that Prince was able to transcend genre and move even a crowd of metalheads during one writer’s live performance experience, how his music was able to band together some Florida skinheads in a shared love of his genre-busting funk, a look at how Prince created his masterwork out of an anxiety of influence, and — to top it all off — we interview Prince’s long-time manager Alan Leeds and Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink about their experiences during the peak of Purple Rain‘s popularity.
So strap yourself in, and — as The Kid himself would say — let’s go crazy …
— Evan Sawdey