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Prince in 'Purple Rain': A rock star who knows he's not a movie star

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Warner Bros/Everett Collection

Despite his mercurial brilliance and electrifying charisma on stage, Prince was not an actor. At least, not in the traditional sense. So when his semi-autobiographical musical drama, Purple Rain, hit theaters in late July of 1984, there was plenty of reason for his detractors (and even his most passionate fans) to be skeptical. The album that inspired the film had been in stores for a month at that point. And while it sold 1.5 million units in its first week (it would eventually sell more than 13 million), there was no way to know it would be such a hit when the film was pitched, green lit, and shot. For some, his big-screen gambit might have seemed like a staggering bit of narcissism and hubris. But it turned out to be a tremendous act of faith in his own talent, persona, and hardscrabble past. Which is pretty much the definition of Art.

I was 15 when Purple Rain came out and already one of the converted with both Controversy and 1999 in my record collection (I would have bought Dirty Mind too, but was probably too scared of what my parents would think if they saw the lecherous album cover in my bedroom). And I’d be lying if I said that the most indelible scene in the movie for me at that age wasn’t the sight of Apollonia being tricked into skinny-dipping in what she believes to be the “purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka.” I also had a soft spot for Morris Day’s onstage hype-man and valet, Jerome. Then there was Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson…

Festooned in leather, lace, and assorted purple-peacock finery like a raunchy Little Lord Fauntleroy, Prince immediately sucks you in and makes you buy what he’s selling. Resistance is futile. Especially when he’s onstage, channeling the phallic guitar pyrotechnics of Jimi Hendrix and blood-sweat-and-tears funk workouts of James Brown in “Let’s Go Crazy.” The conservative play for Prince, of course, would have been to stuff the film wall-to-wall with concert clips like that one, limiting his exposure as a first-time actor. But Prince was never one to play it safe. He exposed all of his vulnerabilities — professional, personal, and sexual for all of us to see (and for many of us to see our own reflections in).

In the film, Prince plays “The Kid,” an ego-driven music superstar-in-the-making who’s still grappling with the psychic albatross of an abusive, alcoholic father (Clarence Williams III) and a broken-home. There’s a girl (there’s always a girl) played by Apollonia Kotero, and a treacherous rival embodied by his real-life labelmate Morris Day. On paper, the whole thing couldn’t be more formulaic if it tried. And yet, the wild card in all of this is Prince — a rock star who knows he’s not a movie star, but who’s also savvy enough to simply play himself (or a version of himself). The film may be shot like one giant close-up, but Prince is determined to allow that close-up to reveal all of his psychological warts and blemishes. I doubt that a lot of people walked out of Purple Rain convinced that Prince had a long movie career ahead of him (something that 1986’s Under a Cherry Moon confirmed). But like the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night or Eminem in 8 Mile, Prince put his real self out there, consequences be damned. And even if he didn’t come across as Hollywood’s next leading man, he delivered something just as honest and potent and raw: his soul.

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