Purple Rain pulled in ten times its budget, earned an Oscar for Best Original Song Score, and boasted a soundtrack that spent 24 weeks at Number 1. So let’s purify ourselves in the waters of Lake Minnetonka and pay tribute to the Purple One. Here we’ll take a look at 10 things you never knew about Purple Rain.
After a string of albums culminated in breakthrough success with 1999, multitalented Minnesota multi-instrumentalist Prince tasked his managers with getting him a movie. The budget was small, the studio once suggested John Travolta should star, but somehow, it all came together. William Blinn, executive producer of TV’s Fame, penned the first draft, which he called Dreams. (Prince, of course, insisted that “purple” make its way into the title.) A recent USC film school grad with no feature film directorial experience, Albert Magnoli went on a late night drive with Prince and convinced him he was the man for the job. Magnoli reworked the script.
The origin of the title track
Prince was legendarily prolific throughout his life, so it won’t surprise his hardcore fans to learn that he handed the director roughly 100 songs to choose from for Purple Rain. The title track actually wasn’t one of them. According to Alan Light’s excellent book, “Let’s Go Crazy: Prince and the Making of Purple Rain,” Revolution keyboardist Doctor Fink had a conversation with the Purple One about Bob Seger, during which he pointed out that power ballads like “Turn the Page” were a huge key to the Detroit singer’s success. Prince asked Stevie Nicks to write the lyrics for what would become “Purple Rain,” but she was too intimidated by the song’s epic length. Magnoli heard Prince doing “Purple Rain” live at First Avenue and loved it.
Wendy Melovin, of Wendy and Lisa fame, introduced the guitar chords into “Purple Rain,” which inspired Prince to rework the original country feel of the epic track into the more rocking version we recognize. The only problem: he started to become concerned that “Purple Rain” sounded a bit too much like “Faithfully,” the massive hit by Journey. Jonathan Cain told Billboard in 2015 that Prince contacted him in 1984 by phone. “I want to play something for you and I want you to check it out. The chord changes are close to ‘Faithfully’ and I don’t want you to sue me.” Cain said he listened, told Prince he was flattered to even receive the call, and gave his blessing.
Prince met Denise Williams at the American Music Awards, where she arrived as Rick James’ date, and soon after, rechristened her “Vanity,” leader of the girl group Vanity 6, who had a hit with the song “Nasty Girl.” Vanity 6 also featured on-again/off-again Prince paramour Susan Moonsie. Prince wanted Vanity to play the love interest for his character, The Kid, but she fell out of the production reportedly due to a scheduling conflict with The Last Temptation of Christ. (At the time, the religious epic would have seen Aidan Quinn as Jesus, Sting as Pontius Pilate, Ray Davies of The Kinks as Judas, and Vanity as Mary Magdalene.) Vanity left Prince and his organization altogether, made music as a solo artist, and landed a handful of film and television roles. Later, she dated Adam Ant and Billy Idol and was engaged to Motley Crue’s Nikki Sixx (yes, if they’d married, she’d have become “Vanity Sixx.”). In the 90s, she kicked drugs, became a born again Christian, left showbiz, and married NFL player Anthony Smith. She died from kidney failure in February 2016, just a couple of months before Prince’s death.
The role originally intended for Vanity was offered to Jennifer Beals of Flashdance fame, but Beals chose to earn a degree at Yale instead. Gina Gershon, who had yet to land a major movie role, was among those who auditioned. The part, of course, ultimately went to Apollonia Kotero, an L.A. Rams cheerleader turned actress who appeared on episodes of Fantasy Island and Knight Rider and in Eddie Money’s video for “Shakin'”. She caught Prince’s eye in an episode of the short-lived adventure show Tales of the Golden Monkey. The Vanity part was retooled for her and Vanity 6 became Apollonia 6, who actually recorded a version of a Prince penned tune called “Manic Monday” that eventually became a huge hit for The Bangles instead. In a 2015 interview with Rabbits Black, Apollonia denied rumors that her and Prince were ever an off-screen item. She did have an on-again/off-again romance with Van Halen’s original lead singer. “David Lee Roth and I were in love,” she said fondly.
“Lake Minnetonka” was cold AF
The whole bit about purifying in the waters of Lake Minnetonka was lovingly parodied by Dave Chappelle and remains one of the movie’s classic moments. It’s tender, mysterious, silly, and sexy, like Prince himself. Unfortunately, four dives into the lake were a nightmare for Apollonio, who found herself “delirious” from hypothermia. She later recounted Prince’s loving embrace as she awaited medical attention. The lake, by the way, wasn’t Minnetonka. It was Cedar Lake. And the scene was eventually finished at a different lake altogether, in California’s warm sunshine.
The love scenes
Earlier versions of the script were reportedly much darker. They also included an additional sex scene, in a barn, later detailed in the song “Raspberry Beret.” The sex scene we got in the movie was apparently shot three different ways, with different MPAA ratings in mind. The version in the finished film is the R-rated one.
Silence is Purple
In today’s age of social media and endless press cycles, it’s almost unfathomable to imagine an artist doing something like Prince did when Purple Rain came out. He stayed silent about the movie for a year. Even the Prince and the Revolution touring commitments were kept to a minimum. It was a remarkable display of restraint that further bolstered Prince’s mystique, which was undoubtedly by design.
There’s a definitive book about Purple Rain
As we mentioned, Alan Light wrote an excellent book called Let’s Go Crazy, all about the making of Purple Rain. But here are some more things you should know about it. For starters, Light is immensely qualified. He’s worked as a writer and editor for Rolling Stone, Vibe, Spin, and the New York Times, and written biographies on the Beastie Boys, Tupac, and Greg Allman. He saw the movie around a dozen times the year it came out, which happened to be the year he graduated from high school, and did a massive amount of research for his book during a freezing Minnesota winter. In a 2015 interview with the MinnPost, he summed up a big part of what makes the whole story of Purple Rain so incredible. “It was the first time anyone had a number one single, album, and movie simultaneously, and they go out on tour and take over the world and he abruptly cuts off the tour six months in. They don’t go overseas, and I think that moment is really interesting and sets up everything that follows.”
NYU offered a class on Prince
The Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at NYU offered a seven-week course in Prince taught by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson and music industry veteran Harry Weinger which naturally included a screening and discussion of Purple Rain. Questlove is a renowned Prince scholar, with countless bootlegs, demos, and rarities in his possession. His second favorite Prince is “When Doves Cry.” Legend has it that Prince’s management were concerned about releasing “When Doves Cry” as a single from Purple Rain, as it doesn’t have a bass line. Needless to say, they were wrong.