'Purple Rain' Taught Me How To Be In A Band

Jul 25, 2014
Originally published on July 26, 2014 1:16 pm

Prince's semi-autobiographical film, Purple Rain, hit theaters 30 years ago this weekend, presenting the world with a bold new model for the contemporary pop artist. NPR television critic Eric Deggans remembers the moment vividly. Hear his conversation with special correspondent Michele Norris above, and read his personal essay on the movie below.

Little compares to that magic moment when you sit down in a movie theater and watch a film that seems as if it's telling your story. That happened to me three decades ago. The film was Prince's pop-funk masterpiece, Purple Rain.

The movie and its soundtrack were milestones for music and media: the christening of Prince as a pop star and the explosion of his uniquely multicultural, genre-bending, sex-drenched form of funky sonic genius.

But for me, nothing before had so fully captured what it was like to perform in a band.

I was a young drummer starting a band with classmates at Indiana University, which would eventually get a short stint as Motown recording artists, playing throughout the Midwest and even in Japan. Watching Purple Rain, before all that would happen, felt a bit like seeing an autobiography, set to the baddest music around.

A band is essentially a marriage with three or four or eight or ten people. It requires you to spend outlandish amounts of time together, sweating to make the kind of art that might move a few hearts and allow you to earn a living besides.

For all its flaws — from the stilted, amateurish acting to clumsy direction and clunky lines — Purple Rain nailed that feeling. As Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman begged Prince to let the band play one of their songs, I relived a thousand other band fights fueled by insecurity, fatigue and immaturity.

Seeing them eventually work it out and blow the roof off of the First Avenue club felt like a special message: You can do this, too.

Purple Rain was special to the world for many other reasons. At a time before YouTube, social media or the World Wide Web, few artists had the power to create multimedia experiences on multiple platforms to speak directly to fans.

Prince, who cultivated a mystique by giving few interviews and revealing little about his life or work, let fans into a fictionalized version of his history on the big screen. And the film, juiced by career-making turns from slick lothario Morris Day and his band The Time, gave Prince-heads a super-sized vision of their idol, tooling around Minneapolis with a tricked-out motorcycle and fiercely ruffled shirts.

Not many years before, the music world was seriously segregated. MTV had to be shamed into playing Michael Jackson videos and the "disco sucks" movement too often felt like a thinly veiled way of saying, "black and brown and gay people suck."

But Prince offered a musical world that put genres in a blender. "Let's Go Crazy" married a bouncy '50s-style rock rhythm to a percolating, '80s pop funk beat. "Purple Rain" was a soulful ballad fired up by incendiary guitar solos. "When Doves Cry" was a percussive marvel held together by a spastic drum machine groove and soaring, Prince-ian vocals.

Sitting in an Indiana theater packed with kids my age, I saw Purple Rain as a validation of the musical world I was already seeking out: a glorious, paisley-drenched descendant of Sly & the Family Stone by way of James Brown and Bill Haley's Comets.

Film purists will insist the movie itself is pure shlock. The female lead, Patricia "Appolonia" Kotero, emotes like she learned her lines that morning. Only the masterful Clarence Williams III — the Mod Squad veteran who gives an emotional performance as Prince's abusive father — seemed to have any real acting chops at all.

But when you're on the tip of a cultural revolution, little of that matters. And looking back over 30 years, it's obvious that Purple Rain became a generational manifesto, while providing the largest megaphone yet for one of the greatest geniuses in pop music.

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"Purple Rain" turns 30-years-old this weekend.


PRINCE: (Singing) Purple rain - purple rain - purple rain - purple rain.

MONTAGNE: Prince's semi-autobiographical movie hit theaters on July 27, 1984. The movie its soundtrack were both hits turning Prince into an international superstar. Back then, many people saw the movie over and over again, often clad entirely in purple including, possibly, the next two voices you're about to hear - big fans. NPR special correspondent Michele Norris and TV critic Eric Deggans.

MICHELE NORRIS, BYLINE: So do you remember the first time you saw this film because I have very specific memories of the first time I saw "Purple Rain."

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Oh yeah - well, I was 18-years-old, and I was a musician - sort of budding musician - had just started a band that a few years later would get signed to Motown. And musicians like me - we went to see "Purple Rain" four, five, six, seve, eight, nine, 10 times, and the irony of it all was that in about three or four years, this sort of loose story of Purple Rain, an artist who's trying to be pushed out by a rival ultimately succeeds - that's what happened to my band. We lived that movie, and so it will always have a special place in my heart.

APOLLONIA KOTERO: (As Apollonia) First Avenue's really famous. A lot of bands make it after playing there - must be real exciting.

PRINCE: (As The Kid) Is that what turns you on?

KOTERO: (As Apollonia) What do you mean?

PRINCE: (As the Kid) Making it.

KOTERO: (As Apollonia) It'd be nice for a change.

DEGGANS: You can't quibble with the acting in the movie because...

NORRIS: Well, that was a nice way to put that.

DEGGANS: ...Most of them amateurs, right? Most of them are amateurs except for Clarence Williams III who played his father who was really...

NORRIS: A well established actor.

DEGGANS: An established actor and was great in the role.

NORRIS: I fee almost like I was having personal connection to this film because it really is a love letter to Minneapolis. That's the city I was raised in. My father's from Alabama, but I was raised in Minneapolis. And my cousin - my first cousin, Mark Brown, who's known as BrownMark to Prince fans, is actually a member of the band Revolution. And this film talked about not just Prince's role as an artist but also sort of the era that he ushered in with that Minneapolis sound. And you heard that in his rival band Morris Day and the Time, which used to be known as Flight Time - and just as an aside, Flight Time actually played at my prom - many, many years ago.

DEGGANS: There you go. There you go.

NORRIS: Let me ask you this.

DEGGANS: OK, sure.

NORRIS: In this film, he reminded people something important - that black artists and particularly black men with a great deal of showmanship played an important role in the foundation and the growth of rock 'n roll.

DEGGANS: Exactly. And, you know, before Prince and Michael Jackson really exploded during that time, there was always this sense that there was white music and there was black music. And black music was funky and the base predominated, and white music was rock oriented, and distorted guitar and high vocals for males dominated that. And Prince came along and said I'm going to play in all of these sandboxes. I'm going to create music that harkens back to James Brown, that harkens back to Chuck Berry, that harkens back to the best of classic rock and the best of funk and create something that you've never heard before.


PRINCE: (Singing) Oh, no, let's go crazy. I said, let's go crazy. I said, let's go - let's go.

DEGGANS: The music was amazing. And it was like a collection of really great music videos, but it also told you something about Prince. They created this multicultural cast of characters that crossed race boundaries and class boundaries in a way that we hadn't seen before, and it was our story - a pop artist who was speaking to us had the ultimate platform of a movie which did happened much back then. So I think that all of that came together to create this phenomenon that is "Purple Rain."

NORRIS: Your favorite song?

DEGGANS: My favorite songs are not the big pop songs. So one of my favorite songs is "Darling Nikki" because I think it's so unusual.


NORRIS: Which we can't play on the radio.

DEGGANS: Which you can't play. But another one of my favorite songs is "When Doves Cry" which was a big hit because there is so - when you look at it on the surface, there is not a lot to that song, but he creates this amazing composition from a really interesting drum pattern, a few chords, a few guitar lifts and that amazing voice.


PRINCE: (Singing) How can you just leave me standing alone in a world that's so cold?

NORRIS: OK, I'm dancing. What about you?

DEGGANS: (Laughing) I'm not dancing but I love that. I love all that stuff.

NORRIS: Eric Deggans, thanks for going down memory lane with us.

DEGGANS: Thanks for having me.

MONTAGNE: And that was NPR TV critic Eric Deggans and Special Correspondent Michele Norris remembering Prince's movie, "Purple Rain" when it came out 30 years ago. It's NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.