How "Purple Rain" found its anthem: "We both knew we needed to find just the right song"

Salon talks to "Purple Rain" director writer Albert Magnoli about his collaboration and friendship with Prince

Published May 5, 2016 10:58PM (EDT)

Albert Magnoli was the director, co-writer and editor of “Purple Rain,” the 1984 hit movie that launched Prince into super-stardom. In tribute to Prince, Albert agreed to share with Salon some of his memories of that special experience. (This interview was lightly edited for clarity.)

Albert, let me begin in a non-traditional manner by opening up the floor here and handing you the microphone to say anything whatsoever.

I’m sorry. I have no words to say. The magnitude of the loss is overwhelming.

Yes, it is. I’m sorry. Let me take you away from today and let’s go back to a different time and another world, back to the early 1980’s when Prince was just emerging. Prince’s latest album, “1999,” had been a hit, and now Prince was seeking to make a movie. What were you doing back then?

I was in Los Angeles. I had recently graduated from the Film School at the University of Southern California, and I was completing my work as the editor of the 1984 film, “Reckless.”

So how did you get involved with Prince and "Purple Rain?"

At the time, Prince’s talent manager in Los Angeles, Bob Cavallo, was shopping a script around Hollywood for a film starring Prince, but he was frustrated because he couldn’t find a director to helm the film. They all kept passing on the script. I met Cavallo at an early screening of “Reckless,” and shortly thereafter he asked me why no one would direct his script. So I agreed to read it.

Cavallo called me the next day for my assessment. I explained that the script needed to be authentic about the real lives of these musicians in Minneapolis. I told him that a writer-director should be sent to Prince’s city of Minneapolis to research these musicians, observe them, learn about them, and understand them. The script should genuinely reflect their lives.

Fine, Cavallo said. But what is the STORY?!

I was not expecting his question. I thought my role was simply to explain to Cavallo why his script was not attracting a director. So I was silent for a moment while I gathered my thoughts. Then I launched into a story. I spoke for about 10 minutes and I described a three-act storyline. This is basically the story that is now portrayed in “Purple Rain.”

Cavallo was taken aback. He was quiet for a few moments. He was processing what I had just laid out. Then he broke the silence.

That’s a great story, he said. What are you going to do about it?

I was not expecting this question either. So I thought about it for a moment. Then I said, put me on a plane to Minneapolistomorrow night. I’ll meet with Prince and I’ll tell him this new story. If he likes it, we’ll make a film. If he doesn’t, you’re out nothing more than the cost of a plane ticket.

Okay, Cavallo said, that’s a deal I can live with.

Wow. Had you ever met Prince before?


Did you know anything about Prince? Were you familiar with his music?

Not much. But about six months before, I was sitting in my apartment working at my desk with the radio playing in the background, and Prince’s song “1999” came on. It captured my attention. I stopped what I was doing just to listen to the song. It was captivating. And I remember thinking to myself that this song itself was a film. So it was a bit ironic that only a few months later I found myself reading a script for a Prince film that I would eventually write, direct, and edit.

So off you go to Minneapolis. Do you remember your first meeting with Prince?

Yes. This was in June or July of 1983. My meeting with Prince was scheduled for midnight. His people drove me to a hotel in downtown Minneapolis where we waited in the lobby, but I was off to the side by myself. At precisely midnight, the doors to the elevator opened and out walked Prince. He was alone. He was wearing a long dark trench coat and high-heeled boots. He spotted his people and began heading toward them, but I was off to the side and he didn’t know who I was so I remember just watching him walk across that large lobby.

Any first impressions?

My first impression was distinct. Prince was shy, soft-spoken, and vulnerable. He was careful, as if he were protecting himself.

We sat down together, Prince, two people from his team, and I. Prince asked me what I thought about the script.

I told Prince that I had not come to talk about that script. Instead, I was there to talk about a new story. Prince was surprised. Well, okay, Prince said, let’s hear it.

I then launched into my story and laid it out for Prince, basically in the same manner that I had told it to his manager the day before. It took me about 10 minutes and everyone just listened.

When I finished, Prince was quiet. Then Prince said to me, let’s keep talking, just you and me. How about a drive? Sure, I said. So Prince’s people departed, and Prince and I hopped into his blue BMW. Prince liked to drive. We drove through farmland in the night, not saying a word.

“Do you know me?” Prince finally asked from behind the wheel.

“No,” I said.

“What do you know?” he asked.

“I heard your song ‘1999’ last year,” I told him.

“Well, how is it, then,” Prince continued, “that you came here and in 10 minutes you told me my life story?”

I replied that if he was willing to commit to this storyline, then we could create something special. He was willing, so we agreed to work together to make the film.

No wonder you remember your first meeting with Prince — that’s where it all began, right there that night in his car. Okay, so at this point you and Prince are a team, but did you have financing for the movie?

We did. The arrangement was that Prince’s management team would put in $500,000, and Prince would put in another $500,000. This gave us a total budget of $1 million to make the film.

This was not a big budget by Hollywood standards, but I was thrilled with this arrangement because it meant we had complete freedom to make the film that we desired. No movie studio would be involved to exert control. It was just us.

Okay, so you have Prince and you have the financing. Did you dive right in and get to work?

Yes. I moved to Minneapolis in August of 1983 and starting living out of a hotel there in order to immerse myself in the local music scene and to start really getting to know Prince and the band members, because, after all, they were my characters. I went to their practices. I went to their gigs. And I interviewed them extensively.

My days consisted entirely of the Minneapolis music scene and the film. During the day I worked on the logistical aspects of producing the film. In the early evening I joined Prince and the band for their practices. Later in the evening I went to their performances. And then I would return to my hotel room and work on the screenplay until the early morning hours based upon what I had absorbed during the days and evenings.

How did this movie go from being an independent movie to a major Hollywood movie?

After I completed the new script in September, I shared it with Prince and his team, and everyone liked it. Unbeknownst to me, Prince’s manager back in Los Angeles, Bob Cavallo, began shopping the script to Hollywood studios, and it turned out that the studios liked it too.

I received a call from Cavallo saying that he needed me back in Los Angeles to join him in meetings that he had set-up with several studios who were interested in the film.

I told Cavallo no. I wasn’t going. I told him that involving a studio could jeopardize the authenticity of the script because a studio would likely seek to control and fundamentally change the story. But Cavallo was looking at it from his role as a talent manager. He said that involving a studio was preferable because the studio would provide the financing to make the film and thus Prince would then not need to expend his own funds.

I really didn’t want to go back to Los Angeles. Cavallo said he would come to Minneapolis and kidnap me. I said I’d hide and he would never find me.

Ha! But it’s hard to be incognito when you’re hanging-out with Prince. So did you finally relent?

I did. I understood what he was after. Financing. So I got on a plane back to Los Angeles.

Our first meeting was with the Warner Brothers movie studio. The studio executives were telling us how excited they were about the script and the potential film. They said they had a wonderful idea for improving it. Just imagine, they said, how great the film would be by having John Travolta play the Prince character.

Are you kidding me?

No. These studio executives actually proposed that we get rid of Prince, and replace him with John Travolta.

This, of course, was absurd. But it was the sort of thing I expected, and it was the reason I didn’t want to involve a studio in the project.

I let their suggestion sink in, and then I slowly looked over at Cavallo and his colleagues. They were stunned. Their faces were ashen.

I told the Warner Brothers executives that this was out of the question. I explained that this was a Prince film, and it was crucial for me to depict the actual environment where the music had originated. The film needed to be authentic, and having Prince and the other musicians appear as themselves instead of hiring actors would make it so.

We encountered similar experiences at the other studios as well. They all wanted to change the tone of the film and the storyline so it would become a “PG-13” rated film instead of an “R” rated film. I was not interested in that.

That’s insane. And what courage you showed — here you were fresh out of film school and a first-time director, and you were telling a major Hollywood studio to go pound sand.

I just had a clear vision about what the film should be.

Didn’t Warner Brothers actually produce this movie in the end?

I was preparing to return to Minneapolis at the end of the day when we received a call from Warner Brothers. They said hold on, don’t leave town yet. Come back tomorrow, we’d like to talk with you again. We went back in to Warner Brothers the next day. They said they really did like the script, and they decided we could make the film our way.

The business people worked out a deal, and a few days later Cavallo called me and said that Warner Brothers agreed to give us a $7 million budget and a 42-day shooting schedule.

You must have been thrilled to now have a huge budget.

Well, $7 million was not a huge budget. It was quite modest actually. The average film at the time was being made for around $9-12 million I believe, so this was still a conservative budget. But yes, it certainly gave us much more room to work with, especially since we had been planning to make the picture for only $1 million.

So back you go to Minneapolis to continue making the movie you envisioned. Did Warner Brothers leave you alone, or did they interfere later in the process?

No, Warner Brothers left us alone. I must give them a lot of credit for that. They left us alone to make the film throughout the shoot and the entire process. One reason they left us alone was because the winter in Minneapolis was harsh – 20 degrees below zero with 8 feet of snow. They were not inclined to visit us.

And what about control by Prince? Did you and Prince tussle at all over creative control of the movie?

No. Working with Prince was excellent. We collaborated very well right from the start. Prince was the musician, and I was the filmmaker. Prince wanted the film to be executed professionally, and he expected me to make this happen. So our roles were naturally delineated and we worked together seamlessly.

What was your relationship like with Prince?

We had an excellent connection with each other. We had a lot in common, especially when it came to the intellectual and emotional ideas underlying the music and the film. This began on Purple Rain. We talked a lot about the motivations behind his character in the film, and about Prince’s songs and their meanings and how they interrelated with the film and the characters. And we talked about how Prince’s music and career in real life related to the film.

Prince and I became close friends and creative partners. Our relationship formed during Purple Rain, and it extended well beyond that for many years. I toured with Prince. And we worked together at Paisley Park on the soundtrack for the 1989 movie “Batman” directed by Tim Burton. Watching Prince recording music at his mixing board at Paisley Park was a privilege.

He was a consummate professional and an exceptional artist and this has tragically ended too soon.

Why was Prince such a private person, almost reclusive? Why did he never open-up in interviews and answer questions?

He was simply a very private person. Once he knew you and trusted you, he would open-up. But yes, he was shy, and sensitive, and vulnerable.

Prince was all about the music. He wanted his music to speak for itself. And he was successful in this because his music speaks volumes.

Why did Prince want to make a movie in the first place? Was he possessed by a raging ego to become a movie star?

No. Prince was all about the music. He was a musical being. The film gave him another way to communicate his music to a wider audience.

Well, it worked. “Purple Rain” was by far Prince’s greatest selling record album. Was Prince driven by fame and money? Did he create all his controversial lyrics and looks to manufacture publicity in order to sell more records? Was it all a contrived act?

No. Prince never calculated or schemed to make money. Prince was about creating music. He was an artist first and foremost, and he wanted to create his music his way regardless of the artistic and business consequences.

Prince’s music contains such a wonderful sense of humor. This humor also appears in the movie. How did this happen?

This was part of our overall approach. We worked to be authentic. Humor and pathos were part of the journey.

Music was an enormous part of the movie. How were the songs selected?

Remember that first night in the car when Prince and I decided to work together? Well, I told Prince that we would need about 12 songs for the film. The very next day Prince handed me 100 songs that were already fully produced and recorded. I asked Prince for the lyrics, and then it was my job to go through all of these songs and select the ones that would work best for the film. The music needed to be integrated into the story, and the story needed to find itself in the music.

When it came time to shoot, what was the atmosphere like on the movie set? Was there a lot of partying with all of these rock n’ rollers?

No. There was no partying. An important element in preparing for the shoot was that the musicians would need to transition from their nocturnal, rock n’ roll world into the daylight world of making a film.

In the music world, sometimes their gigs wouldn’t even begin until midnight or later, they would play all night, and then they would sleep all day. In the film world, however, they needed to get up at 5 a.m., get to the set, and we would work all day until around 9 p.m.

This wasn’t an easy transition, but they did it. They were all very professional. There were never any incidents on the set.

The "Purple Rain" movie was such a magical creation. Did you know while you were working on it that you had a smash hit on your hands?

No, I didn’t. No one did. We just worked hard and did our jobs.

Think about it. I was suddenly on a plane to meet Prince around July 1st, 1983, and we wrapped shooting the entire film in mid-December that same year. It all happened, start to finish, in about 5 months. This is an incredibly condensed period of time to conceive, write, finance, organize, and shoot a musical motion picture.

When did you realize that you had a huge hit?

The first real indication came when Warner Brothers tested the picture. Cavallo and I had been telling them from the start that the film had the potential to cross-over to a wider, more mainstream audience. But they didn’t believe it. They simply did not know what they had. They were envisioning a small release – 200 screens – and mainly in the urban areas of the country. They felt they had a short run of only one or two weekends in the theaters.

We disagreed. So Warner Brothers screened the film for a test audience and the results were outstanding. People loved it. Warner Brothers thought that maybe this was an anomaly so they tested it again, and the results were the same – excellent, with a high 90s score. They tested it a third time with an all-white demographic, and again it tested in the high 90s. The film had achieved its objective of crossing over.

At this point, Warner Brothers realized that they had something special. They changed their strategy and agreed to launch the film on a national basis on 900 screens and give it a decent run.

That strategy worked because it was a big hit. “Purple Rain” became the #1 movie in the country, the album was #1 for 24 weeks straight, and multiple singles were hits, including two at #1. The movie soundtrack also won for Prince his sole Oscar Award, and his very first two Grammy Awards.

How did “Purple Rain” become the title song?

The song “Purple Rain” was not included among the 100 songs that Prince initially gave me.

As I was going through the 100 songs and identifying ones for the film, I was constantly seeking a special song to serve as the climax at the end of the film. Prince and I discussed this and we both knew we needed to find just the right song for this – an anthem.

Prince was playing a benefit concert at the Minneapolis nightclub First Avenue, which was the club that was featured in the film and where we shot the performance scenes. Prince would often try out new material there. On this particular night, August 3, 1983, Prince played the song “Purple Rain” for the very first time ever. I was in the audience in the balcony. I knew instinctively that this was the song.

After the show I said to Prince that this was the song we were looking for, and he agreed. He said it was named “Purple Rain,” and Prince asked if the film itself could also be named “Purple Rain.” It was perfect. The title was born.

Where do you think this name came from?

I’m not sure, but if you have ever been to Minneapolis, you know that the weather can be quite extreme, and they have very dramatic, torrential downpours. Just before a fierce storm, clouds would begin to churn and roil. Prince would grab me and take me outside. We would stand together in a field just looking up at the sky. It would change color from dark gray to blue, and finally to purple. And then the sky would open-up and down came the rain.

These memories will be with me forever.

By Cody Cain

Cody Cain is the author of the new book, "Mend or Spend: How to Force Rich People to Solve Economic Inequality," available here. Follow Cody on Twitter @codycainland.


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Albert Magnoli Movies Music Prince Purple Rain