Prince's sudden death in April triggered mourning around the world, with fans grieving his loss with heartfelt tributes on social media, celebratory block parties and more. But for me, I needed to watch "Purple Rain," the 1984 movie that propelled him into superstardom.
And not just once — but 19 times in two weeks.
The movie marks its 32nd anniversary Wednesday (July 27), and I'm finally starting to make sense of why I was so drawn to watch it repeatedly during its limited run in theaters following his death.
Not in the visionary-musical-god-cultural-sex-icon sort of way, but as a misunderstood-shy-kid-with-a-difficult-past-that-many-couldn’t-reach sort of way. "Purple Rain," the film, was Prince’s story, and in some ways, it’s also mine.
Prince was known for having had a difficult childhood: His parents divorced before he was ten, and he was on the move constantly as he stayed in different homes and changed addresses more than 30 times as he grew up. In a 1981 Rolling Stone interview, Prince is described as having "pretty much raised himself from the age of twelve."
As for his specific relationship with his parents, Prince’s dad, John Lewis Nelson, was a jazz musician. Even though Nelson named Prince after his band, Prince Rogers Trio, because he “wanted [Prince] to do everything I wanted to do,” growing up Nelson did not provide the support or encouragement Prince needed to become a musician. Prince told Tavis Smiley in a PBS interview that his dad wouldn’t let him play the piano as a child because he was “not as good as him.” According to Touré's biography, "I Would Die 4 U: Why Prince Became an Icon," their relationship improved towards the end of Nelson's life.
As for Prince’s mom, in his four-decade long career, you can practically count the number of times he’s ever mentioned her with one hand. Eric Leeds, brother of Prince’s former tour manager, said in "I Would Die 4 U" that “he spoke of his mom very, very, very rarely. That was a subject that you never wanted to bring up to Prince...It was not a secret that he harbored a lot of resentment toward his mother.” Everyone in Prince’s camp that Touré interviewed agreed: Prince’s mom was a sensitive topic that was to always be avoided.
How Prince felt about each parent is best represented by their characters in "Purple Rain."
Every major character in the film plays themselves, with the glaring exception of Prince’s parents. Prince plays himself, but is named The Kid because the film’s director saw Prince as a “vulnerable kid.” The Kid’s mother is the only major character that does not have a name. She is simply credited as mother. The Kid’s father is credited as father but has a name and a central character of The Kid’s growth. (The Kid’s mother is also white in the film, and Prince’s mom is black.)
Whether all of that was done consciously or subconsciously, it’s a pretty accurate representation of Prince’s relationship with each parent.
There’s one particular scene in the film that I think accurately depicts the result from Prince’s relationship with his parents.
In the scene, his bandmates Lisa and Wendy have written a song and asked The Kid for his opinion, which he denies. Fed up with his behavior, Wendy confronts him about his paranoia of getting hurt, saying “You should know by now that we wouldn’t hurt you. You should know by now we that wouldn’t put a dark cloud over your head.” Instead of responding directly, The Kid uses a puppet that resembles him to respond with a childish joke. The band walks out, and The Kid is left alone with the puppet. The puppet tells The Kid, “You don’t need those girls or their stupid music. All you need is me.” The Kid frowns and the puppet responds, “Man, I don’t know. Life’s a bitch.”
I relate with The Kid/Prince so much, especially in that scene. When you’ve been on your own for most of your life, it’s excruciatingly hard to trust others, no matter how badly you want to.
Words are hard to accept. I didn’t leave my home until I was 19, but I was basically on my own by age 13. My parents were never around trying to make ends meet and for other reasons I still don’t (or want to) understand.
My older sister, who raised me when I was a baby, was diagnosed with a debilitating disease when I was six and by the time I reached middle school she could no longer take care of herself, let alone a tween. My older brother and dad did not get along and he was kicked out before I hit puberty. Similar to Prince, I was left to my own devices for most of my childhood.
More than any artist I’ve ever admired, when I look at Prince, I see myself.
When I look at Prince/The Kid, reflecting back at me is a 5’2 vulnerable, petulant woman of color, frustrated by rules and arbitrary limitations with a difficult childhood and complicated relationships with friends, family, and romantic partners. Someone who’s very shy and insecure but loves to perform. Someone who doesn’t enjoy reminiscing of a past they’ve tried so hard to defeat. Someone who desperately wants to be intimate with others, but can’t shake off the feeling of abandonment. Someone who grew up without a safety net.
Societal norms dictate kids that come from traumatic home environments are “bad news.” Growing up, I remember my friends’ parents telling them to stay away from me. Before I hit puberty, my character had already been decided because of a life I never chose. I didn’t have a prodigious talent to overshadow my reality, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t aggressively try to pursue my dreams to escape it. As it did with Prince, my childhood motivated me to never give up. It’s one of the few characteristics I developed from my childhood that I am grateful for.
Our blinding determination doesn’t mean we somehow “transcended” our childhood, the pain of abandonment just gets easier to ignore when you no longer have to rely on others for basic survival.