Purple Rain: Music on Film by John Kenneth Muir continues Limelight Editions’ Music on Film series. Each book focuses on the stories behind the making of a musical film. In the case of Purple Rain, Prince’s 1984 phenomenon, Muir calls it a “backstage musical.” Unlike other films the series has focused on, such as West Side Story, it wasn’t a traditional musical with the cast breaking out into song. Purple Rain was a movie about musicians and all of musical sequences occurred onstage in front of an audience.
In 132 pages, Muir manages to put the film into context. Though Prince has long since been a household name, he wasn’t quite there yet when plans were being laid to make his debut film. Muir does a good job of explaining just how nervous Warner Bros. was to bankroll a summer movie starring a non-actor. Prince had a few very significant, then-recent hits under his belt (“Little Red Corvette,” “1999,” “Delirious”), but as Muir explains, Warner executives were convinced they were making a niche movie no one would see.
Muir’s greatest assets while writing the book were obviously Purple Rain’s director Albert Magnoli, the film’s editor Ken Robinson, and one of Prince’s former managers Robert Cavallo. All of them participated in the book, providing Muir with many firsthand accounts of the film’s production. Magnoli, in particular, is very forthcoming. He describes Prince as quite vulnerable, especially during the initial preproduction of the film that would turn him into one of the biggest stars in music. The aloof, ultra-confident image that many have of Prince is not the one Magnoli leaves the reader with. In fact, the director even says that the star was visibly nervous during some of his love scenes with leading lady Apollonia Kotero.
Among the more bizarre revelations is that Warner executives at one point suggested recasting John Travolta in the Prince role. Apparently that’s how skittish they were of trying to market the film with someone who was not quite a mainstream music star, let alone a movie star. Magnoli definitely comes across as extremely proud of the film, which was his debut feature. The director clearly invested a great deal of creative energy into the film, from pre-production right through to the film’s release. Another fascinating part of the film’s production involves the departure of original leading lady Vanity (the former stage name of Denise Matthews). Muir does a solid job of covering all these topics and more, bringing a sense of drama and discovery to one of the ‘80s defining pop culture moments.
Near the end of Purple Rain: Music on Film, Muir briefly discusses Prince’s three theatrical follow-ups, Under the Cherry Moon (1986), Sign o’ the Times (1987), and Graffiti Bridge (1990). He is disappointingly very dismissive of Cherry Moon. Yes, the black & white romantic comedy was a flop at the box office and lambasted by critics. But as a fan, I would love to read an extensive account of that film, which marked Prince’s directorial debut. Interestingly, Magnoli claims he was the uncredited director of the concert film Sign o’ the Times, which officially credits Prince as director. Taking Magnoli at his word, that would explain why the concert performances in Sign are closer in style to the exciting ones in Purple Rain rather than the clumsy ones in Graffiti Bridge (for which Prince is also the credited director).
Hardcore Prince fans may know much of the story told in Purple Rain: Music on Film. But the research Muir has put into the book make it worth reading even for those who think they know everything about the film. It’s a slim volume that doesn’t take long to read and makes a nice reference work for one the greatest rock movies ever made.