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Continued: The making of 'Purple Rain'

  • Article by: JON BREAM , Star Tribune
  • Last update: July 29, 2009 - 3:18 PM

Standing alone outside the Palace nightclub, Steve Fargnoli looked like the saddest man in Hollywood.

He'd devoted two years to bringing Prince's dream, "Purple Rain," to the silver screen. But following the premiere and after-party July 26, 1984, Prince's manager was pessimistic about this maverick rock movie with a first-time star (Prince), first-time director (Albert Magnoli) and first-time producers (Fargnoli and his partners), made in Minneapolis of all places.

I tried to be encouraging, mentioning a few early glowing reviews and the cavalcade of A-list celebs who reacted enthusiastically at the Grauman's Chinese Theater premiere -- Eddie Murphy, Pee Wee Herman, Christopher Reeve, Morgan Fairchild, Kevin Bacon and the king of Hollywood himself, Steven Spielberg, as well as music stars John Mellencamp, Kiss, Lionel Richie, Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, the Talking Heads, Rickie Lee Jones and Little Richard.

Fargnoli fretted until he saw the box office report four days later: "Purple Rain" topped "Ghostbusters" as the nation's highest-grossing film.

The movie would go on to earn more than $65 million (cost: $7 million) and its Oscar- and Grammy-winning soundtrack would sell more than 10 million copies and yield four smash singles. Before you could say "Let's go crazy," a quirky cult figure from Minneapolis was transformed into an international rock star.

• • •

By the time "1999" became a hit in 1982, Prince was thinking about making a quasi-autobiographical movie (tentatively titled "Dreams") featuring lots of music. It was up to Fargnoli to pull it together. That was extra challenging because Prince, always a mystery to fans and the media, wasn't very communicative with his potential collaborators.

Screenwriter William Blinn, who had worked on the TV series "Roots" and "Fame," said in 1984 that Prince told him he wanted "a picture that people would think of as 'weird' but couldn't get away from. He's got something he wants to communicate. I don't know if it's something you could write down. It's an attitude more than anything else."

For musicians in the Time, Vanity 6 and Prince & the Revolution, there were acting and dance classes beginning in April 1983, not to mention music rehearsals at a warehouse in St. Louis Park.

In August there was a benefit concert at First Avenue for Minnesota Dance Theatre, whose staff helped train the musicians. The crowd was surprised because Prince & the Revolution were playing songs no one had ever heard, and there was a new member, Wendy Melvoin on guitar. Little did the increasingly disinterested crowd know that Prince was recording the concert for the movie and its soundtrack album.

"I had no idea what the movie was going to be," Melvoin told me in 2004. "Al [Magnoli] and Prince were writing it as they were going. During that whole summer, people were called in and asked, 'What is your relationship with Prince? How would you see a situation arise?' Blah, blah, blah. Then 10 days later, there would be some pages [of script]."

A month before filming, the leading lady, Vanity of Vanity 6, dropped out, supposedly to work with Martin Scorsese. In Los Angeles, Magnoli then chose unknown Patricia Kotero. When she met Prince in Minneapolis, he asked: "Do you believe in God?" They went for a ride in his purple limousine, she sang along to a cassette tape and they danced at First Avenue. She got the part.

• • •

"Purple Rain" was shot in November and December 1983, mostly at First Avenue, with $35-per-12-hour-day extras, who, per usual with Prince, were barred from speaking to the media.

I had a sense that this movie was going to change Prince's stature, so I began researching an in-depth Star Tribune series, talking to his mother, teachers and childhood acquaintances, and acquiring a copy of his birth certificate that showed he was two years older than he claimed. Since Prince hadn't really blown up yet, most of the interviewees were just talking Minnesota Nice about a local guy who might make good.

The series was scheduled to run the week "Purple Rain" opened. In the meantime, the first single, "When Doves Cry," had soared to No. 1 on the pop charts and spent five weeks there. Suddenly, Minnesotans were curious about Prince, and my four-part series set a record for newsstand sales.

In July, the "Purple Rain" soundtrack landed at No. 1 and remained there for an astonishing 24 weeks. By the beginning of the Purple Rain Tour in November, Prince was as hot as Bruce Springsteen, who'd released "Born in the U.S.A." that summer. The Boss kicked off his tour with three shows in St. Paul; Prince launched his with seven shows in Detroit and did five in St. Paul in December.

Purple no longer stood only for the Minnesota Vikings. The Purple One had put Minneapolis on the musical map -- and had given manager Fargnoli more and more things to worry about.

Jon Bream • 612-673-1719

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