Thirty-seven years ago today (July 27th, 1984), Purple Rain hit movie theaters. What soon followed was an almost instant super-charging of an era now known as the “Minneapolis Sound.” Prince’s statement-making project simultaneously topped the respective charts for films, albums and singles (with “When Doves Cry”), a feat only achieved once before – by none other than the Beatles.
The album spent 24 weeks at Number 1 on the Billboard charts and Prince collected an Oscar for the now discontinued category “Best Original Song Score” for the song “Purple Rain.”
The city of Minneapolis is the un-credited costar of the film. Of course, it’s is a very different place now in both appearance and personality, but there are still a variety of surviving film locations and relics you can visit.
Purple Rain sites you can visit
While Purple Rain was without question a defining moments for First Avenue (we just call it “First Ave”), the fantastic history of this bus-depot-turned-music-venue was already legend by then. Since 1970, virtually every artist of note to visit Minneapolis has played here.
The roll call of music history is literally written on the outside walls of the building in a sea of white stars: Tina Turner, Ray Charles, BB King, Iggy and The Stooges, The Cure, The Replacements, U2, REM, Run DMC, Public Enemy, Nirvana, Rage Against The Machine, The Beastie Boys, Radiohead, Moby, Coldplay, The White Stripes, Lizzo, and virtually any other artist you can name, popular or not, has played here. Or should have, for form’s sake. After his death in 2016, the white star containing Prince’s name was painted gold by an anonymous fan.
Prince actually recorded the album version of the song “Purple Rain” during a live performance at First Ave on August 3 1983, during a benefit concert for the Minnesota Dance Theatre, using a mobile recording studio parked outside. Since the audience that evening had never heard the song before, there was no distracting singing along â just transfixed listening.
There are events in First Avenue’s Mainroom Tuesday through Saturday nights (pandemic restrictions notwithstanding), so communing with this piece of history is pretty straightforward.
Located in Chanhassen, 20 miles from downtown Minneapolis, Paisley Park was not in Purple Rain, but it contains countless memorabilia from the film, and many other Prince eras, so it’s perhaps the most important stop on a Purple Rain themed tour.
Paisley was Prince’s recording studio and event space (and later his home). It now serves as a museum dedicated to its former resident, who technically still lives there in an urn located in the lobby.
Opened in 1987, getting into Paisley used to require exquisite timing or extremely well-connected friends. Pilgrimages became easier in the 1990s, when Prince started holding semi-regular public events there. But even getting in on those occasions was no small feat.
Events, usually starting at midnight or 1 a.m., were famously announced only hours before they began. Without any of the wondrous communications platforms we have today – having your own, non-work cell phone was still rare – news traveled by word-of-mouth through clubs and hasty phone calls, sometimes to sleeping friends, who would then get ready at hysterical speed and drive (or find someone that was still sober to drive) the 40ish minutes out to Paisley.
Once in a while, Prince would actually perform at these events, but only when he was least expected to perform. After two or three bait-and-switches, it dawned on me that the more certain everyone was that Prince would perform, the less likely he would actually perform. Doing what people expected him to do was not the Purple Yoda’s way. Instead, he mostly lurked at the DJ booth, observing how hard people were boogieing to recently recorded music.
In the years before his death, there were decidedly less hectic, and therefore less thrilling, regularly scheduled events, like a pajama-themed dance party or the “Paisley Park After Dark” series.
Now of course, one can indulgently tour Paisley and ogle Prince memorabilia for $45. Fun fact: I didn’t visit Paisley during daylight until 2017.
But enough reminiscing. The tour includes visits to recording studios, the sound stage, and numerous pulse-quickening exhibits, including various Prince outfits, instruments and the customized 1981 Honda CB400A Hondamatic featured in both “Purple Rain” and the 1990 flop “Graffiti Bridge.”
The real “green rooms” at First Avenue are little more than glorified closets and there is no maze-like warren of hallways and rooms in the basement as is suggested in Purple Rain. The backstage scenes in the film were shot a few blocks away at the Orpheum Theatre. It’s possible to get a gander at these areas, along with several other historic downtown Minneapolis theaters, on a public tour led by the Hennepin Theatre Trust.
The Kid’s house
The house where Prince, A.K.A. “The Kid,” lived in the film is still standing and easy to visit. (The site is labeled on Google Maps.) Prince reportedly bought the neglected house less than a year before he died, so it’s unclear if anyone is living in it right now. Either way, please be respectful of its possible occupants and neighbors if you decide to stop for a selfie.
“Lake Minnetonka” (The Minnesota River)
When a shivering, mostly naked Apollonia emerged from “purifying” herself in the “waters of Lake Minnetonka,” Prince accurately states “That ain’t Lake Minnetonka.” Indeed, it ain’t even a lake.
The scene was shot at a calm spot along the Minnesota River just outside Henderson, Minnesota, population 888, about an hour’s drive southwest of Minneapolis.
I didn’t learn this fact until decades later, and only after one very public error on my part, published on a now defunct website, when I believed a trusted source who assured me the scene was shot at Cedar Lake in Minneapolis.
This article has a map, which also shows where one of the motorcycle rides was shot. If you’re a completist, this is the spot you’ll need to visit to fill your Purple Rain bingo card.
Fun fact: The scene was shot in early-November and it was so cold that Apollonia, lifelong resident of balmy Los Angeles, was treated for hypothermia after completing an impressive four takes. It allegedly started snowing soon after they wrapped for the day.
Scenes from the movie were filmed on the Skyway level of the glass-enclosed Crystal Court in the IDS Center in central downtown Minneapolis. The IDS is still the tallest building in the city, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.
A recently completed massive renovation of the ground floor notwithstanding, the skyway level looks similar now to when filming occurred and is open to the public seven days a week.
Don’t waste your time looking for these Purple Rain sites:
- The Huntington Hotel – The hotel where Apollonia stays in the movie is actually located at 752 South Main Street in Los Angeles.
- Railroad tracks – Some of the shots of Prince tearing along railroad tracks on his bike in the film, and a few random street scenes, were shot in L.A., where filming moved after it got too cold to continue shooting in Minneapolis.
- The Taste – There was indeed once a legendary funk music venue in Minneapolis called The Taste Show Lounge which is now closed, but the Apollonia 6 performance in Purple Rain was not shot there. The exterior of the fictional club was shot in L.A. The interior scenes of the performance were shot at the old Union Bar at 507 East Hennepin in Northeast Minneapolis (also closed), not to be confused with the new Union Bar & Grill downtown.
Relive aspects of Purple Rain
- Morris Day and the Time still tour!
- Many of Prince’s ex-bandmates, and eons ago even Prince himself, have been known to sit in with the soul/R&B band Dr. Mambo’s Combo, who have been playing on Monday nights at Bunker’s since 1987. Drummer Michael Bland, who was with Prince’s band for seven years during the New Power Generation era (and my classmate in high school), was discovered by Prince while playing with the group. Other famous musicians that have joined the Combo on stage include John Mayer, Johnny Lang, and Andre Cymone.
- Prince’s staple meal during the “Purple Rain” era was spaghetti and orange juice. Honestly, it sounds awful, but if you want to literally get a taste of what was going on in Prince’s mind at the time, throw caution to the wind and give it a try.