Prince was born to be on camera even if he was never cut out to be a movie star. Like Madonna, he made great use of MTV in the channel’s early days, when those destined to thrive in the 1980s learned how to join their songs to arresting images. And Prince was never less than an arresting image, sporting an early-’80s wardrobe that seemed inspired in equal parts by prom dresses, sci-fi uniforms, and 18th-century dandies. When he performed, he alternated between playing directly to the camera and ignoring it. Either way, the camera loved him. The 1987 film Sign O’ The Times rarely comes up on any list of great concert films, but give it another look and you’ll find yourself wondering why.
When he wasn’t performing… that was another story. Prince gave interviews infrequently and never seemed particularly relaxed when he did. Acting was even more of a challenge. With a mic in his hand, no one was more charismatic. Tasked with playing a dramatic scene, or any emotion beyond aroused amusement, and he struggled. Prince appeared in three narrative films, essentially giving up on acting after the poorly received Graffiti Bridge in 1990, which arrived on the heels of the even less kindly received 1986 film Under the Cherry Moon, which Prince also directed.
But in 1984, Prince made movies work for him with Purple Rain, the story of The Kid, an extremely Prince-like musician trying to make it in Minneapolis fronting a band called The Revolution. The film falls somewhere between an act of semi-autobiography and self-mythology, even if it stops well short of hagiography. Depicted as egotistical and damaged, The Kid is a not-always-likable figure. He ignores band members Wendy and Lisa (Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, members of the real-life Revolution just like the other members of the onscreen band) and in a pair of scenes, following the example of his abusive father (Clarence Williams III), abuses his girlfriend Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero).
The film is co-written by TV veteran William Blinn and Albert Magnoli, the latter of whom served as Prince’s manager at one point. Magnoli also directs, but it’s Prince’s movie in every conceivable sense. The Kid learns to collaborate by opening his mind and accepting Wendy and Lisa’s song, which turns out to be the film’s title track, “Purple Rain.” And he triumphs by overcoming his scheming, obnoxious rivals in The Time, whose funky performances legitimately seem like they could challenge Prince. But the fix was in on any competition: In real life, The Time was a Prince creation, playing songs co-written by Prince. Purple Rain was Prince’s world and everyone in it had a part to play.
In 1984 that world extended well beyond the confines of the film. It’s hard to understate how unavoidable Prince was at the time. After years of minor hits and critical acclaim, he’d had a commercial breakthrough two years earlier with the album 1999, which yielded mammoth hits and turned him into an MTV fixture. The film was part of a full-court press to keep that success going, preceded a month earlier by the soundtrack album and two months earlier by the hit single “When Doves Cry.” Turn on the radio and Prince was there. Turn on the TV and Prince was there. Go to the movies and Prince was there, too.