Music News & Reviews

A 30-years-later look at Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’

He rose from the bathtub, chest bare, hair luscious. Staring plaintively at the camera, he raised a hand, beckoning the viewer to enjoy some sexiness while meeting music’s next great superstar.

Prince already was a success when he made that evocative video for “When Doves Cry,” lead single off the 1984 album “Purple Rain.” His previous album, “1999,” went four times platinum.

But “Rain” vaulted Prince into the rarefied air of Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen and Madonna, artists who were big in the mid-1980s and will be big forever.

“Purple Rain” was a media blitz, with the “Doves” single followed by the album and then the movie for which it served as a soundtrack. The film starred Prince as a musician. It was like he was Elvis or something.

It was a vanity project that was almost a Vanity project, until she pulled out and Apollonia Kotero took the role of love interest to the Kid, a Minneapolis singer-songwriter a lot like Prince.

The film hit No. 1 at the box office upon its release on July 27, 1984. “Doves,” that irresistible mix of blistering guitar, drum machine, feathers and tears, sat at No. 1 on the singles chart at the same time.

The soundtrack topped the album chart the next week, and refused to budge for 23 more. It is tied with “Saturday Night Fever” as the No. 3 soundtrack of all time, behind “West Side Story” and “South Pacific.” It remains Prince’s best seller.

For a more current comparison, the “Frozen” soundtrack only spent 13 weeks at No. 1, despite your kid singing “Let It Go” 1,300 times.

To mark the “Rain” phenomenon’s 30th anniversary, Bay Area Prince tribute band the Purple Ones will perform all its songs, in the order they appeared in the movie, Saturday night at Harlow’s in Sacramento. That’s the first set. The second set also will be Prince songs, but not from “Rain.”

The Purple Ones are a 10-member outfit with a four-piece horn section and two lead singers, one male, one female. Because you don’t get Prince without Wendy, Lisa, Vanity, Apollonia, Sheena and Sheila E.

The band is celebrating “Rain” because it just turned 30 and because it’s “an iconic ’80s album, like ‘Thriller,’ ” bandleader and trumpet player Morty Okin said.

Okin said Prince includes horns in his shows, but not always on record. Okin likes the challenge of creating horn parts for Prince songs otherwise without them.

“His music is very complicated,” Okin said. “It’s super, super funky.”

Okin is 44, and therefore part of the key teenage demographic when “Rain” arrived in 1984. But although he always appreciated Prince, his avid fandom is more recent, fueled by the diminutive superstar’s energetic live shows.

“His shows are just incomparable to any other artist,” Okin said. He saw Prince earlier this year at Oakland’s Fox Theater.

“He was doing the splits,” Okin said of Prince, 56. “It was insane. The guy has not aged a day.”

Nor have “Rain’s” songs. The non-musical moments in the movie are pure melodrama, and Prince was a magnetic presence but not much of an actor (his subsequent star vehicles “Under the Cherry Moon” and the “Rain” sequel “Graffiti Bridge” bombed). But the 1984 film’s long musical-performance scenes, shot at Minneapolis’ famed First Avenue nightclub, still electrify.

Other 1980s music with synthesizers and drum machines sounds dated, yet Prince’s doesn’t. Nor does his ability to mix funk, soul, rock ’n’ roll and New Wave into something his own.

Though one can pinpoint younger artists with clear Prince influences, such as Frank Ocean, his larger impact on pop music is less identifiable but nonetheless widespread.

“Michael Jackson and Prince influenced everyone,” Okin said.

Prince’s music is helping shape the Bell Boys, a Sacramento group composed of three brothers in their 20s, Erik, Jacob and Elijah Bell. The Bell Boys’ original music, which they will perform Friday night at Harlow’s in a show unrelated to the Purple Ones’ gig, tends toward indie or garage pop and rock.

But they went Purple this past June, learning Prince songs for a tribute event called “Princeology” at Sacramento’s Colonial Theatre.

“When we did ‘Princeology,’ we paid a lot of attention to his music, to how he produced his songs,” Bell Boys guitarist Erik Bell said. The brothers are writing songs for a new album, and “we took some pages out of his book,” Bell said.

Like drum machines, which they used when they learned “I Would Die 4 U,” off “Rain,” for “Princeology,” and other electronic elements.

The Bells might already have picked up some Prince by virtue of geographic proximity. They grew up partly in northern Wisconsin, and Jacob Bell went to college in Minnesota. Erik has been to Minneapolis’ First Avenue club many times. He did not see Prince, but “just walking those same streets” was enough, he said.

The Bells listened to Prince’s hits as kids but did not see the R-rated “Purple Rain” until much later. The film still resonates, Erik Bell said.

“It is not the most amazing film in the world, but it catches the perspective of a musician” trying to make it, Bell said. “We are trying to do the same thing.”

Bell said there are plans for a “Princeology” show every year, and the Bell Boys might play “I Would Die 4 U” on Friday alongside their own songs. The Bells are young enough that they easily could perform at 50th anniversary “Purple Rain” celebrations.

“I think Prince’s music is just as timeless as the Beatles’,’’ Bell said. “It doesn’t matter when you play it.”