It's entirely possible to be a massive Prince fan — to recognize him as the most influential musician since James Brown and the most dexterous since Stevie Wonder — and still admit that he never quite cracked his ambition to be a movie star. His three fictional films — the iconic Purple Rain and the forgotten Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge — never enraptured the way his albums did, partly because there was always something otherworldly and ephemeral about Prince Rogers Nelson that never translated to the screen. Like his fellow Minnesotan Bob Dylan, the musician seemed to float through his films as if he was never quite there, which could make his performances feel occasionally self-conscious or smug.
So maybe that's why his finest movie moment jettisons acting all together and delves purely into the art form he mastered. Watch Prince's performance of "The Beautiful Ones" in Purple Rain, which — in a mere five minutes — embodies everything he did so incredibly: emotion, passion, sensuality, poignancy, combustible sex appeal, can't-take-your-eyes-off-him star power. It's not necessarily the moment Prince became a legend, but it's as good a starting point as any.
The song selected for the movie's cathartic high point doesn't seem coincidental. Purple Rain had plenty of indelible hits — "When Doves Cry," "Let's Go Crazy," "Purple Rain," "I Would Die 4 U" — but it was "The Beautiful Ones," which was never a single, that the album's engineer Susan Rogers believed was closest to Prince's heart. "That song meant a lot to him," she told Rolling Stone in 1989. "It was written for Susannah Melvoin [Prince's onetime girlfriend]. A lot of songs were written about her, but that was the first one."
Prince's obsession with Melvoin would play out on later excellent tracks like Sign O' the Times' "If I Was Your Girlfriend." But in this first film, that pining is dramatized through the fictionalized story of an up-and-coming rocker named "The Kid," who's strung out on Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), a beautiful singer who's just come to town. The film is a romantic triangle in which The Kid battles for Apollonia's heart alongside Morris (singer Morris Day), an egotistical ladies' man who fronts a rival band.
Purple Rain received some good reviews at the time — Gene Siskel even put the film in his Top 10 of 1984 — but the cast members unintentionally remind us that they're musicians, not actors. Then, right at the 32-minute mark of the film, The Kid's stilted psychodrama suddenly zooms into hypnotic focus. Naturally, it happens while he's singing a song.
The setup is simple: Morris has succeeded at wooing Apollonia while they cool their heels at Minneapolis' buzziest club, First Avenue. Just then, The Kid and his band are announced onstage, and our diminutive hero kicks into those ghostly opening chords. He's behind the piano, and he's as subdued as the song's first few moments, director Albert Magnoli slowly pushing in on him with an almost hesitant curiosity. The Kid is immersed in the emotional headspace of his bittersweet song, barely noting the crowd. We occasionally cut back to an impressed Apollonia, who slowly realizes the song just might be about her, but it's Prince that the camera can't stop observing. He's barely moving, but he's magnetic.
In the song, "The Beautiful Ones" finds the narrator opening with a pleaded ultimatum to his beloved — "What it's gonna be? … Is it him or is it me?" — and then segues from self-doubt ("Don't my kisses please U right?") to abject adoration ("The beautiful ones/Always smash the picture"). But this dreamy ballad, mixing sci-fi keyboards and echo-y percussion, soon begins to grow in intensity as The Kid rises from the piano, his eyes locking onto Apollonia to offer his love and a coy marriage proposal: "If we got married/Would that be cool?" More so than in any scripted scene in Purple Rain, Prince and Apollonia connect intimately during this performance, even though they're across the room from one another. It's the power of his music and his words that touch her.
And Prince hasn't even gotten started yet. After a series of anguished, falsetto "ba-by ba-by baaaaa-by"s, The Kid explodes, the camera getting a perfect front-row seat and never cutting away. Pointing demonstrably at Morris, himself and then her, he is a man possessed, bellowing, "What's it gonna be, baby?/Do you want him?/Or do you want me?/‘Cuz I want U!" And then Magnoli, brilliantly, cuts to a long-range shot of Apollonia, in the middle of the club, the camera slowly pushing in to see the full range of emotions on her face: love, confusion, astonishment. Other people are watching the concert, but only she understands what it means.
Sauntering around the stage, flashing his bare chest to her, The Kid becomes pure sex and youthful confidence, proclaiming; he drops to his knees with the swagger and desperation of the Godfather of Soul himself, wailing, "I'm begging down on my knees/I want U." In that moment — in his sequined jacket, frilly white gloves and flowing blouse — Prince never seemed more vulnerable, more romantic, more undeniably fuckable. When he collapses to the stage as the song concludes, the audience trying to touch him, he's as spent as if he'd just had an orgasm. How could Apollonia deny him? How could anyone?
The sequence was as straightforward as a concert music video, but Prince elevated it to art through sheer commitment to a song that meant so much to him. Sure, he's lip-synching, but the anguished sentiment was blazingly real. The purity of the performance blows away most of the rest of Purple Rain — it captured a genius' essence in its natural habitat as a musician and singer. He made love feel kinetic, paralyzing and traumatic all at once.
And then the song was over. When The Kid's band walks offstage in the next scene, his guitarist (played by actual Prince bandmate Wendy Melvoin, Susannah's sister) admires, "Can't do it any better than that." Prince didn't have a lot of those moments in his film career. But he made this one count.