The Number One Movie in America: Purple Rain
By Sean Collier
September 26, 2020
“Purple Rain,” the iconic, Oscar-winning musical seemingly borne straight from a place deep in Prince’s subconsciousness, was only the number one movie in America for a single week.
That seems low for such a cultural touchstone — especially one that launched one of the most successful soundtracks ever recorded. While the film only topped the charts for a few days, the album “Purple Rain” sat atop Billboard for 24 consecutive weeks.
Here’s the impressive thing, though: There have been few more loaded weeks in the history of the multiplex than the week “Purple Rain” won.
Among the films Prince climbed over to get to the top that weekend: “Ghostbusters,” “Gremlins,” “The Karate Kid,” “The NeverEnding Story,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Muppets Take Manhattan,” “The Last Starfighter” and “Revenge of the Nerds.” Plus the debuting “Meatballs Part II.” Oh, and Disney, still opting for periodic re-releases rather than dealing with the nascent home video market, dropped “The Jungle Book,” which landed in third.
So yeah, it only won one weekend, but what a weekend.
As impressive as that murderer’s row of hits is, the big deal is that “Purple Rain” managed to topple “Ghostbusters.” The comedy megahit had just won seven consecutive weekends, holding the throne for most of June and July; it had its sights set on August until Prince interrupted the parade.
In fact, “Ghostbusters” did triumph in August, too. “Purple Rain” wasn’t robbed of a repeat win by a newcomer, but rather by “Ghostbusters” reclaiming the top spot in its ninth weekend.
Temporarily halting the ghost train speaks to how culturally dominant Prince was in 1984. “Purple Rain” would go on to make $68.3 million in its initial release — good for 11th in a blockbuster-filled year — and earn Prince both Grammys and an Oscar (for Best Original Song Score, a category that was dropped the following year). His videos — including “When Doves Cry,” a song written overnight when “Purple Rain” director Albert Magnoli asked Prince for another song dealing with the film’s themes — were in heavy rotation on the ascendent MTV. Andy Warhol started painting Prince.
At one point, he had the number one song, film and album in the country — simultaneously.
Looking at “Purple Rain” 36 years later is an object lesson in how powerful Prince’s charisma and appeal was. On paper, the film is a mess; an underwritten love story and problematic parable about cycles of domestic abuse, the script for “Purple Rain” would produce no more than a 30-minute short without all the music. Some scenes feel like an art film, while others — look for Morris Day’s knock-off “Who’s on First” routine — feel like community-theater farce.
None of that matters. Because Prince is really, really Prince in this movie.
That includes a number of full-length performances, including breathtaking renditions of “Let’s Go Crazy,” “I Would Die 4 U” and the title track. While his relationship with the young singer Apollonia is certainly odd, the chemistry between them makes for some captivating scenes (and one that certainly had the MPAA considering an X rating).
Moreover, Prince is so delightfully, charismatically, confusingly weird at all times that you can’t turn away. Even in a throwaway scene about a go-nowhere subplot, Prince makes things indelible by performing a surprisingly adept ventriloquism routine with a tiny Dracula puppet. (It may be a Prince puppet. This puppet exists somewhere on the Prince-to-Dracula spectrum.)
Not much about “Purple Rain” should work — and yet everything does.
“Purple Rain” is the subject of the latest episode of The Number One Movie in America, a look back at past box-office champions. Each episode’s film is drawn at random from a list of every number-one movie since 1977. Please listen and subscribe!
Next time: The sequel to the film that launched one of the best-selling soundtracks of all time. (No, not “Graffiti Bridge,” a different one.)