What Was It Like Being an Extra in Prince’s Iconic Purple Rain? One InStyle Staffer’s Personal Memory
In his decades-long career, Prince influenced generations of listeners with his music, his style, and his otherworldly character. His death in 2016 at age 57 inspired tributes from those who knew him well, and also those whose lives he touched in unexpected ways. In fact, InStyle’s very own former director of photography, Lisa Martin, encountered the artist at one of the most important moments in his career, during the filming of the 1984 movie Purple Rain, and took away a very special memory:
My family moved to Saint Louis Park, Minn., outside Minneapolis, from Phoenix, in 1971. I first heard Prince on a Friday night in 1979 at the Roller Gardens, a skating rink in my suburb. My friends and I roller-skated every Tuesday or Friday night at Roller Gardens or Cheap Skate in Minneapolis, where the DJs played music based on their taste or what the crowd requested. These were also places where you could hear the latest releases before they hit the radio.
The DJ at the Roller Gardens always spun great disco mixed with R&B and pop music. One night, I remember him saying that he was putting on a new 45 record by Prince called “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” I had never heard Prince before that night, and as soon as the song came on, everyone was dancing and moving to the beat, rolling around the ring, shaking their butts and getting into the grove. The hook was loud and clear and we were all singing it. His sound was heavy, sexy, poppy—everyone at the Roller Gardens that night wanted to be everyone’s lover.
When I got to high school in the early 1980s, I met my first boyfriend. His brother was roommates with Bobby Z., Prince's drummer for the band The Revolution. We thought that was so cool. I remember meeting him at their apartment, but I was too shy to say anything. Before the filming of Purple Rain had even begun or had even been heard of, my boyfriend and I got to hear an early release tape to see if we liked it. We drove around the lakes (Calhoun, Harriet, and Isles), listening to the tape, and as soon as we heard “When Doves Cry,” it was all over.
We listened to the entire tape, smoking a joint and driving around the lakes. Unlike any other music at the time, Prince had this amazing way of getting to your heart and soul. There were a lot of good bands in our town, but nothing like this. We knew he was going to put Minneapolis on the map.
Later in the semester, we started hearing rumors that Prince was making Purple Rain into a movie, and then a kid came up to us at school and said Prince needed extras for the club scenes that were set at First Avenue, a historic club downtown. We could get paid to go down to the club the following Monday, so my girlfriends and I just had to ask our parents if they didn’t mind if we skipped school. At that particular time in my life, I wasn’t the best student, and I thought this would be a great learning experience. My mom said it was fine. So what was it like?
The first couple of days were kind of boring. We were asked to be fillers in crowd scenes, smoking generic cigarettes constantly, even with smoke machines going in the background. We were escorted back and forth to a nearby theater for more sound takes of screaming, clapping, etc., for the soundtrack. After two days of this, we finally saw Prince, when we were filming all the amazing club scenes. I remember Prince on the First Avenue stage with his purple guitar, white ruffled shirt, tight pants, and boots, singing, dancing, writhing on the floor, jumping off a big speaker on the stage, and landing in a split right in front of us.
We heard every song from that album, but I will never forget when Prince played “Purple Rain,” or when we had to learn the hand gestures for “I Would Die 4 U.” The whole experience was like being in a long concert over many days, with a small crowd of people we knew. A lot of our friends kept showing up at the club throughout the week. We probably didn’t look old enough for a lot of the scenes, but that didn’t matter because we still got to be able to witness this amazing music and film.
The funny part is that in the end, you can only see my arm and half of my head (bottom right) in the last frame of one of the songs from The Time:
After the film came out, it was huge and Prince blew up along with The Revolution, The Time, Wendy & Lisa, Minneapolis, and First Avenue. One of the best parts for me was when I went on vacation to see my grandparents in San Francisco that year, and I was able to tell my snobby California cousins in a nonchalant way that I was an extra in Purple Rain, and that Minneapolis was actually a cool place to grow up.
So thanks, Prince, for giving us your music, which allowed us to connect and feel free of rigid values on sexuality, to have fun, get funky, be cool, dance, and party. No matter if you can see me in the film or not, it was amazing just to watch and listen to you, and to be a small part of the crowd in Purple Rain.
Watch a trailer for the film above, and rent Purple Rain on amazon.com ($4).