By the mid-’80s, Prince had already made his reputation on fun, funky, irrepressible dance numbers like Controversy’s 1981 title track, and the many solid songs on his ambitious 1982 double album, 1999 (“Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious,” another in a string of great title tracks). A movie for such a pop star was a (forgive me) sign of the times (Rick Springfield also made Hard To Hold in 1984). Prince’s debut in Purple Rain was a dolled-up version of his own musical career, a case where the soundtrack bolstered the movie and vice-versa. (Let us never forget the importance of purifying yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.) The movie kicked off with earworm “Let’s Go Crazy”—with spoken-word lines describing the afterworld that seem especially chilling today—leading us to the beautiful, conflicted “When Doves Cry,” and even the scandalous “Darling Nikki.” It’s no surprise at all that Vanity Fair straight-up named Purple Rain the greatest soundtrack ever in 2007. But the climax of the movie, and the album, belongs to that fabulous title track.


Leave it to Prince to make his finale number an eight-minute-plus gospel-inspired song, seemingly crafted to highlight a guitar solo that reached the high heavens, while bringing out the Purple One’s most emotive lyrics yet, leaping across octaves. Those first few solo guitar strums indicate that “Purple Rain” will be a lot more raw than Prince/The Kid’s previous numbers, as the verses describe his relationships with his family, his girl, and his band. In the movie and in life, the song elevates the performer’s status as a musical artist.

For the rest of his career, “Purple Rain” functioned as Prince’s signature song, showing up in nearly every show he ever did, including a rain-soaked Superbowl finale. But in 1984, “Purple Rain” indicated what an artist like Prince was capable of. Sure, he was fun at the club, he had solid vocals perfect for cleverly seductive lyrics, and he could spin around while playing the guitar. But “Purple Rain”’s bare-bones emotionality, translated by such superb musicality, revealed like no other song that we were witnessing a poet, an artist, a genius—a status Prince secured over and over in the years to come.