‘Purple Rain’ Director Talks Prince’s Weird, Wonderful Masterpiece
As Prince‘s death has reminded us, Purple Rain was a landmark: a film that blended gritty cinematic intensity with one of Hollywood’s most eruptive original scores. Released in 1984, the film – which has returned to over 200 theaters since his death – turned Prince into a movie star and grossed $70 million at the box office, making it the 10th highest-grossing movie of that year.
But it’s also easy to forget that, over 30 years ago, the idea of making a movie around a pop star – especially a relatively new one like Prince –was considered a risky move, and Prince and his managers faced numerous hurdles in getting it made. Albert Magnoli, the then-upstart film school graduate who directed the film, looks back on the intense journey that went into the creation of Prince’s cinematic breakthrough.
Given you hadn’t directed a feature film yet, how did you land the job of helming Purple Rain?
Bob Cavallo, one of Prince’s managers, was shopping a screenplay around Los Angeles trying to find a director. You can imagine back in 1983 how difficult that must have been for him. Hollywood was very skeptical when it came to making a motion picture with a rock star. He was getting passed on by directors – A-list, B-list, C-list.
I was working with James Foley, one of my colleagues at USC film school, and he passed on the project; he said the script didn’t work. Bob got angry: “I don’t understand. I got a lawyer in Los Angeles who gave me a talent agent who gave me a series of clients. I don’t know why we’re getting stonewalled.”
I told him I’d like to read the script – this was June 1983. I called him and said, “I think I can help you understand what went wrong here.” We met and I said, “You need a writer-director to get to Minneapolis and talk to Prince and the rest of the musicians, and talk about what it means to those kids who live in this strange part of the country that no one was paying attention to.” He wanted to know what the [new storyline] would be. I told him the story and he said, “That’s a heck of a story.” I said, “You need to send me to Minneapolis,” and I left the next day.
“Prince had about 100 songs and they were all ready to go.”
Steve Fargnoli, one of Prince’s managers, met me when I got off the plane. He said they had a commitment to the other script for a million dollars. Management was putting up $500,000 and Prince was putting up $500,000. Steve said, “Kid – that story you told Bob? I don’t want to hear a word of it. You’re here to tow the line.”
When did you finally meet Prince?
I was brought to a hotel where Prince was staying. Steve was joined by Chick, Prince’s bodyguard. At exactly 12 midnight, the doors opened and Prince stepped out, all alone. I was able to watch him walk from the elevator to Chick in a long left-to-right pan. And in that moment, I felt a massive amount of vulnerability and shyness, a reticence, coming from him. He was just walking.