Thirty years ago today, Prince’s funkadelic rock opera Purple Rain hit theaters. Grossing $7.7 million its opening weekend, the film cemented the rock legend’s status as a chart-topping, Academy-Award-winning songwriter, and put Minneapolis on the map as an epicenter for innovative music. The Purple Rain soundtrack has sold 20 million copies to date, according to Billboard.
The semi-autobiographical film stars Prince as a gritty performer named “The Kid,” a talent struggling with violence in his family life. The loose plot centers around his strained relationship with his father and a burgeoning romance with Apollonia, a striking new girl in town who is hell-bent on becoming a performer herself. The racy love scenes between the pair, although a bit cringe-worthy now, became as iconic as Prince’s pranks, including the infamous scene where he insists on “purifying” Apollonia by having her dive into the icy Lake Minnetonka.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life – an electric word, life, means forever, and that’s a mighty long time,” says Prince on his pulpit, the stage at the now-legendary Minneapolis venue First Avenue. The film was shot at the Greyhound station turned music venue and laboratory where Prince frequently tested out new material in the ’80s. The same year spawned a series of now-canonical works from Minneapolis bands — besides Prince and The Revolution’s Purple Rain, Husker Du’s subversive Zen Arcade and The Replacements’ Let It Be dropped the same year to critical and commercial acclaim.
Coincidentally, the three albums – Let It Be, Zen Arcade and Purple Rain — were released within several months of each other. But while Husker Du made a hardcore statement and The Replacements changed the scope of punk, they paralleled Prince’s ability to incite a creative revolution within music. Prince is an artist who – despite his mythic acclaim – still has strong ties to his roots, and the purple man himself still lives in the Twin Cities.
The title track has a mythic lore surrounding it, too. According to NME Prince originally enlisted Stevie Nicks to write lyrics for “Purple Rain,” but the songwriter turned it down, saying: “It was so overwhelming, that 10-minute track… I listened to it and I just got scared,” she said. “I called him back and said, ‘I can’t do it. I wish I could. It’s too much for me.”
Fans have long speculated what “purple rain” means. Bandmate Lisa Coleman stated that the song “symbolizes a new beginning – purple, the sky at dawn; rain, the cleansing factor.” Given the lyrics – each one has to do with The Kid reflecting on formative relationships, including with his father, his bandmates and Apollonia – the song gestures towards coming together during a time of conflict. Thirty years later, the feeling is especially prescient.