Every so often a celebrity death comes so unexpectedly that it unites the world. We saw this phenomenon occur in January with the sudden and devastating death of David Bowie; now, we witness it once again with the loss of Prince, the diminutive rock genius from Minnesota whose cultural influence was so encompassing that its effect can be felt across the full width of popular art. As tributes continue to pour in from across the world, we will take this opportunity to argue for Purple Rain as the greatest film soundtrack of all time*.
It would be a surprise if for every hundred people who know every single word of the song – and can chime in at just the right moment with a chorus of perfectly timed ‘woo hoos’ – there is even one among them who has seen the 1984 film Purple Rain. Many who know the album intimately forget there even was a film. The fact that a small star vehicle about the career and relationship troubles of an up-and-coming rock star could generate not only one of film’s best original soundtracks, but one of the greatest albums of all time, is testament to the breadth of Prince’s musical genius. Purple Rain the film might be forgettable ’80s trash cinema that barely has the grounds for a cult following, but the soundtrack is a gem of pop-rock, R’n’B funk magic that captured the attention of the world.
It wasn’t the first time that pop music had been written for a film – A Hard Day’s Night, The Graduate, Shaft, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, and Saturday Night Fever all came before it – but success of this magnitude for a totally original soundtrack was unprecedented. A Hard Day’s Night might come close in concept and design, and Saturday Night Fever might come close in terms of sheer sales, but the former is rarely considered the music that defines the Beatles, and the latter’s soundtrack is not comprised entirely of original music. To date, Purple Rain has sold over 20 million copies, generated hit singles across the world, and certified its position in both rock and film history.
The film follows Prince as The Kid in a semi-autobiographical, and no doubt idealised, version of the star’s own ascent as a musician. The plot of the film might for the most part be arbitrary rock-star myth-making, but it nevertheless sets the stage for several exquisite extended performances of the album’s plethora of hits, including ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, scorching versions of ‘The Beautiful Ones’ and ‘I Would Die 4 U’ (above), a sublime iteration of the masterful ‘When Doves Cry’, while closing, of course, with the truly epic titular ballad ‘Purple Rain’. By the film’s end you might question the artist’s acting credentials, but of his genius you will have no doubt; that the music can so utterly transcend the film’s mediocrity is testament to its sheer brilliance. While Purple Rain the film would scrape a generous 3/5, the soundtrack is a solid, Oscar-winning 5/5 masterpiece, one of the greatest albums of all time, and certainly the greatest original soundtrack.
Prince will be dearly missed.
* In a bid to discourage unnecessary whinging about semantics, it is worth mentioning that there are many types of film music. For the purpose of this article, the writer is choosing to discuss Purple Rain as the greatest original pop soundtrack. Therefore, if this was extended to a complete list then that list would not include film scores (Williams, Morricone, Herrmann, and the like), nor compilation soundtracks (Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, The Harder They Come, and so forth), but only original pop soundtracks. On those terms, we welcome your responses to this claim.