About 20 minutes into the 1984 movie “Purple Rain” we find The Kid, played by Prince, standing in front of Apollonia (played by Apollonia Kotero), a budding singer, near the embankment of a lake. After Apollonia asks Prince for career help, he says that she first has to pass the initiation.
“What initiation?” she asks.
“For starters, you have to purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.”
Apollonia looks to her right, considering the challenge. A few seconds later, she’s disrobing. Just as she plunges into the water, Prince says, “Hey, wait a minute! That’s n—“
But it was too late. When she emerges from her “purification,” climbing out of the lake, Prince, a sly grin on his face, says, “That ain’t Lake Minnetonka.”
I arrived in Minneapolis on a seasonably cold Wednesday to take the proverbial plunge into Prince’s world. Specifically, I was putting myself on a self-guided “Purple Rain” tour of the city that Prince helped put on the music map.
There was no better time to celebrate the movie and its highly lauded soundtrack. After all, this summer marks the 30th anniversary of the release of “Purple Rain (the album in June and the film in July).
The movie was filmed almost entirely in and around Minneapolis and even though I’ve been to this city about two dozen times and I’m a life-long admirer of The Artist Once Again Called Prince, I’d never made such a pop culture pilgrimage here.
When tracing the footsteps of a famous native son or daughter or a legendary figure associated with a particular place, we often learn something about that person; we get a better sense of how they lived.
I wasn’t expecting this to happen with the self-proclaimed Purple Yoda. He’s made a career out of being a quiet enigmatic genius.
I knew the interview request I had submitted was a long shot, but I was hoping to at least get a tour of Paisley Park, Prince’s not-open-to-the-public headquarters, about 30 minutes southeast of the city. I worked my network, foraged the right emails and sent them off.
Meanwhile, I wanted to have fun on my self-guided tour.
“Let’s go crazy,” I said to myself as I revved up my car at my hotel and pointed it toward downtown Minneapolis.
The plot of the film is fairly straightforward: A young talented up-and-comer (The Kid, a thinly veiled Prince) falls for Apollonia, a singer who has come to the big city seeking success. At the same time, she’s being courted by The Kid’s nemesis (played by Morris Day). It’s a tale of breaking free of the past and of redemption.
Ask people here and they’ll tell you how the movie helped put Minneapolis on the pop culture map.
One of those people is Craig Rice, whose office I stopped by on my second day in the city. Rice is a longtime friend of the Purple One who was the assistant director on “Purple Rain” and is working at the Minnesota Film & TV Board.
“The legacy of the film is showing a very flamboyant time,” he said. “The economy was good. Sex wasn’t killing people yet. And at the same time, we got to see one of the greatest performers of all time in a film that is set right here. The music is just fantastic.”
Many critics and listeners agreed. Rolling Stone magazine ranked the album “Purple Rain” as the second best record of the '80s and Entertainment Weekly proclaimed in 2008 that it was the best album of the last 25 years.
The nine-song record went platinum 13 times over and spent 24 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 album charts. The movie earned Prince an Oscar for original song score.
Thanks to "Purple Rain," Prince is one of the few artists to have won a Grammy, an Oscar and an American Music Award -- and he did it in the same year.
One of the people who helped create all this is Matt Fink, the keyboard player in the Revolution, Prince’s backing band for much of the 1980s. I drove out to Savage, a town about 20 minutes south of Minneapolis and, in a basement recording studio underneath a suburban house, Fink sat across from me explaining the importance of Prince at that moment.
“The whole spirit of that time period in the mid-‘80s was influenced by Prince in the same way the mid-‘60s were dominated by the Beatles,” said Fink who now produces bands and also plays in a Prince tribute band called The Purple Experience. “Prince broke down racial barriers in pop culture.”
“And,” he added, “being that Minneapolis wasn’t a major music city, it made us try even harder to get in the national spotlight.”
Since then, Prince and Minneapolis have become nearly synonymous. Yet if an alien landed in this city of 400,000 knowing nothing of its famous son, finding signs of the Purple One would not be easy.
There are no witty cafes or shops referencing the diminutive genius, no plaques affixed to walls declaring that Prince had slept or eaten or recorded here, and no statues of him (though the city did erect one of Mary Tyler Moore on the Nicollet Mall downtown).
But scratch the surface a little bit and Prince is everywhere in Minneapolis. From a chef I talked to at the buzzy restaurant Travail Kitchen & Amusements who was Prince’s private chef for two years to the friend of a friend who once was his hair stylist to the guy I met in a cafe who was convinced Prince is really not human.
Or the club manager who let Prince in a side door and escorts him up to a private spot on the balcony. A self-guided “Purple Rain” tour would not be complete without visiting First Avenue & 7th Street Entry, the downtown club where most of the scenes from the movie were shot.
Manager Nathan Kranz walked me around the spacious spot, pointing out things that have changed since 1984 (“there was a bar there, the VIP room on the balcony we created solely for Prince is gone”)as well as the private path the diminutive genius takes — through a side door, down a hall, up the stairs to the balcony — when he wants to see a band that night.
We stepped outside and he pointed to the Target Center, the basketball and concert arena, across the street, as well as a building under construction. “There was an alleyway there which was in the movie and the hotel where Apollonia stayed was meant to be where the Target Center is now.” (The scenes shot outside of that hotel, the Huntington Hotel, were shot, in fact, in Los Angeles.)
The Purple Rain tour was turning out to be a tour of what is no longer there. Minneapolis has a proclivity, it seems, for tearing down the old and raising the new.
As I found out when I met with Kirk Hokanson, who worked as the location scout for the movie.
“To be honest,” he said when we first met downtown, “we didn’t think ‘Purple Rain’ was going to be that big of a film. But then Prince won an Oscar and we were like, ‘Wow!’”
With a thick three-ringed binder he’d unearthed in his apartment – the binder he worked from when he was scouting and on set – we set out to find as many sites as we could.
With First Avenue as our starting point, Kirk took me down an alleyway where Morris and Prince fought over Apollonia (between North First Avenue and North Second Avenue and North Fourth Street and North Fifth Street), the club in northeast Minneapolis where Apollonia’s band debuted (507 E. Hennepin Ave.), and the house where Prince’s character lived (3420 Snelling Ave.).
Some of these spots are also listed on the self-guided “Prince for a Day” tour created by the city’s bike-share program, Nice Ride.
And that lake that wasn’t Lake Minnetonka, the one that Apollonia jumped into?
Hokanson thought for a moment. “That was actually the Minnesota River, just south of the city.”
After driving around with Hokanson, I thought I’d exhausted my Prince and “Purple Rain” tour. But then some breaking news came across Twitter: There would be a party that night at Paisley Park, Prince’s massive headquarters.
I’d heard about these infrequent but legendary parties where he often performs into the wee hours of the morning. Would that night be any different?
I arrived at Paisley Park in Chanhassen, about 25 miles southeast of downtown Minneapolis, right at 9 p.m. I knew the party wasn’t going to roar until later, but I wanted some assurance I’d get in. All I needed, it turned out, was $30 cash and to leave my cellphone in my car (yes, they’re strictly forbidden at Prince HQ). A bonus thrill: The purple motorcycle Prince rode in “Purple Rain” is on display in the lobby.
For the rest of the night, a DJ spun mostly Prince songs until about 2 a.m. when the lights when on. No Prince performance, not even a sighting, tonight, unfortunately.
The next morning, my last in Minneapolis, I woke feeling as though I had one more thing I needed to do. As I sipped coffee in my room, it hit me. I grabbed my car keys and swimming trunks.
About 30 minutes later I was standing in front of Lake Minnetonka, staring out at the lake, the chilly air slapping my skin.
And with that, I jumped in. The water was arctic cold.
As I crawled out, a man in his 50s suddenly appeared.
“What do you think you’re doing? That's freezing!” he barked.
“I’m purifying myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka,” I said.
The man cocked his head to the side, as if he were questioning my sanity. And he should have been. And then he walked on.
It was 30 years in the making, but since Apollonia failed to do it, someone had to pass the initiation.
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