Prince’s single, “When Doves Cry” hit #1 on July 7, 1984 and stayed at the top of the chart for a month. The movie Purple Rain was released on July 27. To the dismay of critics, it grossed $80 million; that’s about $184 million in 2014 dollars. It was a hit with the people, in other words.
I saw Purple Rain as soon as it came out, in West Palm Beach, sitting between my two BFFs, JoEllen and Jane. JoEllen was visiting from St. Pete. Jane and I called West Palm home, for the moment.
The last time the three of us had been to the movies was in 1982 when we sat in a row to watch, grudgingly, a blockbuster called ET. We were at the Plaza in St. Petersburg, long gone but once a duplex of huge screens where first runs played to packed houses. Going to the movies used to be an event.
None of us were thrilled about ET but we were the last people in America to see it for the first time. It was July and the theater was air conditioned. By the end, all three of us were sniveling. Steven Spielberg’s inane story made us cry. He manipulated our hearts to take flight as that stupid bicycle soared past a predictably full moon.
“I hate fucking Steven Spielberg,” JoEllen muttered as she slapped the tears running down her cheeks.
“I hate Steven Spielberg too,” I agreed with a sniff.
“Damn Steven Spielberg for making me cry,” Jane said, pressing clean Kleenex into our hands. A mom before she was a mom, Jane always had things like clean Kleenex.
Two years later, another late July night. We found seats as the lights went down, nearly the only white faces in a theater bursting with people. West Palm was full of crackers who had probably never heard of Prince. Plus, this was the midnight showing.
But it was unlike any movie I’d ever been to. Nearly as soon as the action started, the audience began to participate. Prince or Apollonia would deliver a line and the audience shouted back. All Apollonia had to do was appear on screen to get hoots and whistles. I’ll be honest: it put me on edge. But once I got over myself, once I let go, it was like watching your favorite TV show with three hundred of your wildest friends.
Then the hit song, “When Doves Cry,” began to play. A shudder went through the crowd. Bodies began to sway in unison. Scattered in the midst, a foot stomp or a knee slap emphasized the downbeat. And nearly everyone in the theater began to sing. Softly at first, building as the verses mounted. We were one. All of us. Out here in the seats, up there on the silver screen, radiating out across the city, across the state; the ripples of the waves we started lapped into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. “This is what it sounds like, when doves cry.”
I cannot hear that song today without re-experiencing the shudder. I can close my eyes and feel the emotion in that theater. My eyes prick with gratitude for the privilege of sharing an experience I never knew I was missing, and never would have had, but for the fate of going to the movies with my two best-friends on a hot summer night.