The Prince Films You Need to See to Understand His Genius

Briony Smith on why every music lover should watch Prince's Sign o' the Times and Purple Rain

PURPLE RAIN, Prince, 1984
I remember the first night I was touched by The Purple One. Sure, I knew about Prince since I was small—who doesn’t?—and loved “Raspberry Beret” and “Little Red Corvette” just as much as anyone else, but I had never really listened to much of his music, or known much about the man. I was flipping through channels one night a few summers ago when I caught a flash of bright yellow. There was Prince, in all his wee glory, cavorting about a stage in a suit of gold, draped with scarves and dripping in jewels and tickling a white guitar whose curvy contours can only be described as Prince-like. I stopped flipping.

Prince’s 1987 concert film, Sign o’ the Times,  unveiled several other truly stunning outfits—including a black onesie emblazoned with neon O’s, a huge white fur coat, and a smart military ensemble with a Chanel-goes-to-the-leather bar feel. I was converted; I bought the Sign o’ the Times DVD online that very evening. Later that year, I shelled out a princely sum to scream and scream as a miniscule caftan-clad Prince sent his falsetto to the heights of the Rogers Centre. His power induced a near-religious experience.

Prince is one of the greatest musicians and performers of all time, but he also possesses that rare quality that elevates one from star to god—he’s completely bonkers. Prince does what Prince wants. He records thousands of songs, but then squirrels them away in his vault for all eternity. He requests his staff to obtain camels at 3 a.m. in the depths of a Minnesota winter. And he dresses like a sexy funk-pirate trapped somewhere on the fashion inspiration spectrum between sixties, eighties and outer space.

When it comes to Prince appreciation, Sign o’ the Times is a good place to start—it will adequately prepare you for the hilarious disconnect of his otherworldly aesthetic and alien affect getting shoehorned into the traditional music film structure of 1985’s Purple Rain.

The Oscar-winning hit film tells the story of The Kid (Prince) and his attempts to reign supreme with his (real-life) band The Revolution in the Minneapolis music scene over mortal enemy Morris Day and the Time (more of Prince’s real-life musician associates), all whilst winning the heart of bosomy love interest Appolonia (one of his numerous real-life ingénues). It’s an old-fashioned spectacular-spectacular that reads as hilariously bad in terms of realism, but gloriously sublime as a music film and ode to Prince’s singular strangeness and chic.

His Royal Badness sets the tone in the opening moments of the movie by applying lashings of eyeliner and mascara, smoothing down his mustache and perfecting his assymetrical mop of curls before hitting the stage to open the film with “Let’s Go Crazy.” The centerpiece of his on-stage outfit is a jacket that has so many things going on that it’s difficult to situate it in our own earth atmosphere, but I can confidently say that it involves brocade, studded shoulders, a pocket square, a flowing white silk cravat, ruched sleeves and loops of silver chain.

In the following scene, he leaves the club after his show in a more casual evening look…which in Princeworld means a studded purple silk frock-coat with tails over a frilled white shirt. And heels—always the heels, at a minimum of three inches. The man is committed to His Look. Another Purple Rain scene depicts a casual first date with Appolonia in the Minnesota woods, for which he dons skin-tight leather pants, a ruffled dress shirt and a high-collared moto jacket with yet more chains. (Prince was clearly a pioneer of Drake’s “I wear all my chains at once, even when I’m in the house” style ethos.)

Other key Prince accessories featured in the movie include pre-Kanye black eye-masks, lace gloves, and his ever-present leopard-print guitar strap. Each and every detail is considered, deliberate, and utterly unique. Dearly beloved, let us give thanks for this tiny god run amok—in music and in fashion, there is but a single Prince among men, and we are 4ever grateful 2 see him in the Purple Rain.

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