‘Purple Rain’ turns 35 – how Prince’s cult classic broke barriers

Courtesy of Warner Bros. Purple Rain was a commercial and cultural breakthrough.

Purple Rain doesn’t avoid the White world; it is included without self-impeding awareness and recalls Lorraine Hansberry’s “I don’t go around thinking about being Black twenty-four hours a day” as much as it fulfills Prince’s utopian manifesto. – Armond White

On July 26, 1984, Prince’s first motion picture, Purple Rain, received its World Premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre. Legend has it that people in Los Angeles were seeking to trade tickets to the Victory Tour for access to Prince’s star-studded party that night on Hollywood Boulevard.

Pretty remarkable considering The Jackson’s six-night stand at Dodger Stadium was still more than four months away, not to mention that folks could simply shell out $3 at the box office to watch Purple Rain in theaters the next day.

The film proved to be an instant hit with fans and critics alike and debuted at number one grossing more than $12.6 million its opening week. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, the late Roger Ebert declared Purple Rain to be “…the best combination of music and drama I’ve ever seen.” Yet the story of what it actually took to make Purple Rain and its lasting impact on American popular culture — and in particular Black popular culture — has been somewhat overlooked in mainstream circles.

My name has to be above the title.

In the spring of 1983, while crisscrossing the country on the 1999 Tour, Prince was already jotting down ideas for a movie, which was originally entitled Dreams. His management contract with the team of Cavallo, Ruffalo, and Fargnoli was about to expire and the trio — wittily known in the industry as Spaghetti Inc. — approached Prince about a new deal.

As Cavallo has since shared with a number of journalists, Prince said he would only re-sign with them if they got him a movie deal with a major studio while adding, “And my name has to be above the title.”

To many, it may have seemed like a fool’s errand. At the time, Prince wasn’t considered that big of a star and even Cavallo admits today he thought Prince’s demand was “a little over the top.”

Nevertheless, he had faith in Prince and as he recently told the Star Tribune’s Jon Bream, “I thought the kid could do anything.” Moreover, Prince’s own belief in himself was supreme. It was with that in mind that Cavallo set forth on a path to get Prince his movie.

It didn’t take long to find a screenwriter in William Blinn, whose credits included Roots, Brian’s Song, and Fame. Yet it was exceedingly difficult to find a director, much less a studio that would finance the project. Most places they approached showed no interest. And, while both Richard Pryor’s Indigo Productions and the Geffen Film Company seemed curious, each had conditions that Prince wasn’t willing to bend to.

CourtesWarner Bros. Prince funded Purple Rain largely by himself.

So, after finally securing the services of a young, inexperienced director (Albert Magnoli), Cavallo helped Prince leverage some of his scheduled royalties in advance and as such, Prince (with a little financial assistance from Cavallo) pretty much financed Purple Rain by himself.

Still, the struggles didn’t end there. Once filming was completed and Warner Bros. Pictures sought the rights to distribute Purple Rain, the industry’s racist proclivities emerged both front and center. As Cavallo recalls, the film studio heads didn’t “get the movie” nor did they have much confidence in its commercial viability, putting them squarely at odds with Warner’s music division.  

Not only did they not think it would play well in the South, but the Warner film division’s initial plan was also to release Purple Rain in a scant 200 theaters with a focus on “urban” America. Furthermore, they refused to believe a couple of test screenings — where the audience response was overwhelmingly positive — were legitimate, suggesting instead that the audiences were stacked with Prince fans.

After an additional test screening proved that theory embarrassingly wrong, the president of Warner Bros. Records, Mo Ostin, stepped up to demand 900 theaters or he would take the rights to the film elsewhere. Purple Rain got 916 theaters on opening day (plus 106 more in the ensuing weeks) and by December of 1984 had earned more than 10 times what it cost to make. Against all odds, Prince made his movie and it was a blockbuster.   

Prince and The (Cultural) Revolution

The impact that Purple Rain — both the film and its original soundtrack — had on American popular culture was both instantaneous and indelible.

Pepé Willie, who began mentoring Prince along with his Grand Central bandmates André Cymone and Morris Day (when they were only 16), likened the phenomenon to the early days of rock and roll. Willie (originally considered for the role in the movie that ultimately went to Detroit promoter Billy Sparks), was introduced to the music industry in the early 1960s as a teenage valet for his uncle’s group, Little Anthony and The Imperials.

There, he recalls the lines of kids waiting around the block (and beyond) at the Fox and Paramount theatres in his native Brooklyn to see the likes of Jackie Wilson, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, Wilson Pickett, Dionne Warwick, and a “who’s who” of Motown among dozens of others performing at Murray The K’s legendary rock and roll revues.

“I happened to be in Los Angeles with Morris (Day) for the premiere of Purple Rain helping him get his own solo career off the ground,” explains Willie. “It was one thing to be at the premiere itself, but to see all those kids in the days that followed circling around city block after city block just to see Prince on the big screen. Wow! I hadn’t seen anything like that for 20 years.”

In spite of the critics who pointed out some of the movie’s shortcomings, it still ended up on just about every Top 10 list that year. And while many focused on the power of the music in Purple Rain — rightfully so — there were a number of African American journalists who dug much deeper in fleshing out the films cultural significance.

MSR News Online Purple Rain propelled Prince’s career to greater heights and broke down barriers in the process.

Upon its release notes Armond White, Purple Rain became to be the most financially successful motion picture of all time where the principal actors were all people of color. White continues:

The black characters here are liberated from the hegemony of white movie creativity responsible for the depiction of black characters as strange and different – not because of their social oppression, but out of the Invisible Man conventions in which blacks don’t really belong in the picture, so if they appear at all it is with diminished character and for unstated purposes.

After Purple Rain, one can imagine movies where race adds to the characterization rather than defines it… Isolated yet ambitious, Prince has vaulted over the morass in which black people interested in the movie image usually flounder, stuck in limbo between character and stereotype. ”

Nelson George and Greg Tate shared similar sentiments, with George calling Purple Rain a forerunner in the Black film movement that would emerge in the late 1980s, while Tate’s review says that it “is certainly truer to the humanity and milieu of its Black principles… than I’ve come to expect outside of independent black cinema.”

Thirty-five years later, present-day icons such as Questlove and Antoine Fuqua are continuing this refrain as are a bevy of Black scholars the likes of which include Judson L. Jeffries, Shannon M. Cochran, and Daphne A. Brooks.

Purple Rain was a game-changer,” reminisces Willie. “To see Prince — with all of his talent, determination, and vision — make such a cultural statement was extraordinary. I was so proud of him as were Black people everywhere.”

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