In 2014, in advance of 30th anniversary of Purple Rain, Warner Brothers announced a “new partnership” with Prince — one that promised remastered and unreleased music from his vaults in exchange for returning ownership of the master recordings to all of his albums to him. Broadly, the announcement felt like a harmonious and happy end to the very public battle he fought with the label in the 1990s. At the time, you either thought that he was rightfully standing up for the rights of musicians, or merely indulging in the increasingly odd behavior that culminated in him painting “SLAVE” on his face and changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol. But for fans, it meant something different. Soon, we might be able to toss out our bootlegs in exchange for official, high-quality version versions of “Father’s Song” and dozens – if not hundreds – of other Eighties songs that were never officially released.
The Purple Rain sessions alone are legendary: Although director Albert Magnoli later clarified that many of them were basically demos, Prince reportedly delivered some 100 songs for potential use in his breakthrough film. But “Father’s Song” actually made it into the movie, during a quiet, melancholy conversation between “The Kid” and his father, and for a very long time it felt like a skeleton key that might unlock the truth between Prince Rogers Nelson, the man, and the iconic performer. Now, his death has papered over the lock, leaving generations of listeners with only the film itself as a biography, an explanation, an encapsulation of his singular identity.
Some 32 years later, Purple Rain feels easy to compartmentalize, and — if you choose not to look closely — to dismiss: separate out the soundtrack, ignore the uneven performances, laugh at or be outraged by its misogyny. But it’s all of those elements together that make it the enduring testament to Prince’s artistry (and imagery) that people still watch today; when Magnoli wasn’t effectively codifying the MTV aesthetic with his Bob Fosse-meets-Bergman approach to capturing the crowds at Minneapolis’ First Avenue nightclub, he was shepherding one of the most important artists of the 1980s through a tortured, occasionally unflattering portrait of art intersecting with life. For every shot of Morris Day tossing a female conquest into a dumpster, there’s a half dozen understated, revelatory lines of dialogue explaining why The Kid struggles to reconcile his rock-star aspirations with the troubling limitations of reality.
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It feels impossible to imagine any of today’s pop stars playing a role like Prince does in the film, even if it weren’t so widely acknowledged to skew closely to his own life. Vain, resistant to collaboration and wildly mistrusting of even his closest acquaintances, The Kid commands thousands on stage with irresistible charisma, then comes home to a basement room in his parents’ house just in time to prevent his father from beating his mother. Is it any wonder that he passes along his indifference, and eventually, abuse to Apollonia, who clearly loves him? Without the music, Purple Rain is a domestic drama about a son coming to terms with the sins inherited from his father: talent, undercut by questionable mental stability, mitigated by the vices that each has at his fingertips – for The Kid, women, for his father, alcohol. Can you imagine Justin Bieber playing a character who experiences a nightmarish vision of his own suicide by hanging?
In the film, The Kid refuses to listen to any of his bandmates’ music or suggestions, but off screen, Prince reportedly collaborated effortlessly with the Revolution – and the soundtrack features some of the most cohesive and iconic music of his career. Not since Johnny Cash had a performer made themselves synonymous with a single color, while “Let’s Go Crazy” and “When Doves Cry” shot to the top of the U.S. and UK charts. But these songs also offered a window into The Kid/Prince’s impenetrable façade of cool, revealing the emotions that bubbled beneath the surface and behind those mirrored shades. “Purple Rain” is the apology that Prince could, or maybe would, never make; the ad-libs that appear to leave Wendy Melvoin literally stunned during “Computer Blue” shed any pretense of politeness about his feelings over of betrayal.
Alternately outraged and vulnerable, Prince felt fully honest behind the microphone in a way that neither he nor the character he played was when off stage. Purple Rain exposed that humanity in an era of increasing polish and artifice, oddly by using all of the techniques that would later become boilerplate for creating mystique (too often without the substance to support it). All of which is why in a way, especially as a fan, you sort of wish that he had never made any other movies, because of how well everything fell into place that first time. Directing its follow-up, Under The Cherry Moon, Prince lacked either the skill or discipline as a filmmaker that he possessed as a singer-songwriter when it came to reconciling the playful and the melodramatic sides of his personality. Magnoli was the one who enabled him to fuse those two sides together into a virtually indistinguishable artistic persona — and thus enabled Prince to make a masterpiece.
In the two years since Warner Brothers’ announcement, “Father’s Song” has not resurfaced, nor has the deluxe, remastered version of the Purple Rain soundtrack that it promised. (Warner did distribute two of his 2014 releases, PlectrumElectrum and Art Official Age, but his subsequent HITnRUN albums were both independently distributed.) Given the control that the new Warner deal gave him over his old material, even his death does not seem likely to loosen control of those recordings. In which case, Purple Rain is, and remains, both one of his greatest works and the greatest opportunity that his fans will likely ever have to know him. Its success, and its longevity, may only have intensified the mystery surrounding who he was and what made him tick, but if you pay close enough attention, he tells us all that we need to know. It fills the space between the man and the legend: Do you want him? Or do you want me? ‘Cause I want you.
Prince’s 2007 performance at the Super Bowl included “Purple Rain” and is one of the greatest live moments of his career. Watch here.