Prince — who died suddenly on Thursday at the age of 57 — was best known as an extraordinarily talented musician of uncommon ability, inventiveness, and mystery. He tended to avoid interviews, preferring to let his music speak for itself. But there was a time when he let a movie do some of that work: Purple Rain, a kaleidoscopic musical that was part-autobiography, part-fantasy. It took the movie world by storm in the same way his music did.
The 1984 film is, as you’d expect from Prince, one of the most unusual pop-music films ever made. Set in his home town of Minneapolis and filled with musicians he was working with during this period — Morris Day and his band The Time, Apollonia Kotero, guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman — Purple Rain casts Prince as “The Kid,” a wildly talented, romantic, eccentric, and neurotic musician.
The Kid’s background is sketched in with a tragic, abusive past — his father is played by Clarence Williams III from TV’s The Mod Squad. The movie is all about desire, pain, and ambition, and it’s no wonder it won him an Oscar for Best Original Song Score. The music of the album Purple Rain tells the story as well as the movie does: from the crazily operatic ache of “When Doves Cry” and “Purple Rain” to the frenzy of “Let’s Go Crazy.”
Purple Rain is in no sense a realistic film — it’s a piece of extravagant expressionism that uses the time-honored framework of the traditional rock film (troubled, talented youth suffers and triumphs) as a jumping-off point for the ecstasy of Prince at the height of both his creative powers and his popularity. The film was a big hit, but, like Prince himself, no one could ever claim to have fully understood it.
Watch a trailer: