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Three decades ago, rookie director Albert Magnoli, fresh out of USC film school, unknowingly embarked on a cinematic journey that would change the lives of everyone involved and make concert film history.
After a fateful meeting with a rising musician who was petite in stature but a giant in his abilities, Magnoli took on an indie film project that would later become one of the most well-known rock movies of all time, Purple Rain. Its star, Prince, would go on to become one of the most acclaimed recording artists of his generation.
We caught up with the director on the 30th anniversary of Purple Rain's cinematic release to find out how it all went down, circa 1984, in Prince's hometown of Minneapolis.
Magnoli recalls that when he and Prince met for the first time, they had an instant connection. "That night, I pitched to him my idea of what the film could be," Magnoli explains. "He liked it very much. He said, 'How is it possible within 10 minutes of us being together you can tell my life story?'" Needless to say, Magnoli got the job, and Prince gave him a whopping 100 original tracks to listen to in order to select a handful that would appear in the film, which was not yet titled.
"The music had to inform the content and themes of the film," Magnoli explains. "Both things had to work in conjunction with each other. I wanted to avoid 'let's hear some music and get back to the story.'"
Magnoli narrowed down the 100 tracks down to the 12 that would appear in the film. Interestingly, "Purple Rain" was not among the songs Prince initially gave him.
"We were always looking for the big anthem where [Prince] got onstage and essentially confessed his sins," Magnoli says. "Later he was playing at the First Avenue bar [in Minneapolis] with his band, which is where we shot the movie. He liked trying out new songs in front of a home audience. That's were he tried out 'Purple Rain.' But it wasn't called 'Purple Rain' at that time. It had no title. I said, 'I like that song,' and he said he was thinking of calling it 'Purple Rain.'" Prince then asked Magnoli if they could title the film Purple Rain, and Magnoli agreed.
Magnoli and screenwriter William Blinn penned the film, which was about a Minneapolis musician who used music to escape his troubled home life and abusive father. Prince starred in the title role, and it also featured his real-life band, the Revolution, along with Apollonia Kotero and the Time's Morris Day.
As Magnoli tells it, nobody had any idea Purple Rain would become so successful and spawn a soundtrack that would go on to become one of the biggest rock albums of all time, claiming the top spot on the Billboard charts for a record-breaking 24 weeks in 1984 and 1985.
"Thirty years ago, we didn't know we were making a major motion picture," says Magnoli. "And working with Prince wasn't working with the Prince who became the worldwide star he became after the movie… he was still considered by most people as a fringe artist. So we went into the film believing we were making a fringe movie."
They had a modest budget of a million dollars to make the film, which was very little even by 1984's standards. Then Warner Bros. came on board and kicked in an additional $7 million during preproduction, which still was not a lot in terms of movie-making.
"When the film was done, Warner Bros. still didn't know what they had," Magnoli says. "They screened it for audience feedback at the Warner lot [in Los Angeles], in San Diego, and in Colorado. All three screenings were essentially comprised of white audiences, and the response was quite strong. Then Warner Bros. realized that indeed I made something that could cross over."
Purple Rain ended up grossing more than $80 million at the box office and became a classic.
So what was it like working with the Purple One and the Revolution? "I always felt they had a very strong work ethic, and were very disciplined," Magnoli says. "It was just a matter of bringing them from the music world into the film world. In music. you're working at night and sleeping during the day. In the movie world… you work 14-hour days that start at 6 in the morning. But working with them was a delight. They responded as professionals and never arrived on set late."
Their strong work ethic paid off, and Purple Rain catapulted Prince to becoming the major superstar he is today — still going strong after more than three decades.