Purple Rain (1984)
Directed by: Albert Magnoli.
Written by: Albert Magnoli & William Blinn.
Starring: Prince (The Kid), Apollonia Kotero (Apollonia), Morris Day (Morris), Olga Karlatos (Mother), Clarence Williams III (Father), Jerome Benton (Jerome), Billy Sparks (Billy), Jill Jones (Jill), Charles Huntsberry (Chick), Dez Dickerson (Dez), Brenda Bennett (Brenda), Susan Moonsie (Susan), Kim Upsher (Kim), Wendy Melvoin (Wendy-The Revolution), Lisa Coleman (Lisa-The Revolution).
I have never been a Prince fan – mostly, I think, because by the time I started listening to music in the 1990s, Prince’s glory days were behind him. I knew some of his songs to be sure, but he seemed rather cheesy to my cynical teenage eyes, all clad in purple, and the fact that he changed his named to a symbol. I had no real understanding of Prince’s musical prowess, or why he changed his name, or how he was fighting with his record company for his artistic freedom, etc. – and to be honest I didn’t really care. This is probably why I never did get around to seeing Purple Rain – one of the only films that was widely available that made Roger Ebert’s top 10 list in the year it was released I didn’t see back in the 1990s.
I was wrong not to care about Prince’s music – while I will never be a Prince superfan I am able to appreciate him as the groundbreaking artist he was, how he invented his own distinct sound and personality, in what was often a terrible decade for music of the 1980s. I was right, however, not to see Purple Rain back then – I don’t think I would have appreciated what the film does right back then, and instead I’d focus on everything the film does wrong. And, there is a hell of a lot the film does wrong even if the highs ultimately make it more than worthwhile.
Purple Rain is an example of a genre musicians have been using as their foray into film since almost the beginning of movies, and continue to this day – the thinly veiled, fictional autobiography of themselves, set just before they make it big. In Purple Rain, Prince plays The Kid – an extremely gifted singer/songwriter/performer in the Minneapolis music scene, struggling with his personal demons, feuding with his flashy rival, clashing with his band members, and falling in love with a beautiful, talented singer. It’s all pretty standard stuff really – you know precisely what story beats the movie is going to hit from the outset, and the movie gleefully checks them off, never pretending that the story is reason why you’re watching the movie. You’re watching for the music – and every single one of the concert scenes in the movie is wonderful. Directed by Albert Magnoli, the concert scenes capture the energy and the passion, and the sheer joy of performance, of Prince’s music and persona. Whether, he writhing away on stage (and on higher things), while singing Darling Nikki, or the emotional rendition of Purple Rain that acts as the films climax (anyone else find it odd though that in the film, The Kid isn’t the one who writes Purple Rain, and it shows personal growth for him to perform it, and allow his collaborators more say in their music, when in reality, Prince was headed in the opposite direction? No, just me – okay, moving along) the musical scenes are brilliant – and if for no other reason, more than make watching the film worthwhile. And it’s not just Prince – I defy anyone not have fun watching Morris Day and the Time perform, dancing in unison as they do. While the film’s most forgettable number is by Apollonia, it’s still very good – good enough that it would a highlight in many other movies.
The moments surrounding those musical scenes is an extremely mixed bag however. The film does deal with domestic violence – as The Kid watches as his father takes out his musical frustrations on his mother in various, abusive ways – and the legacy of violence, as The Kid repeats that violence on Apollonia – although it doesn’t really deal with that in any real way. But there are other scenes that are played for laughs that are really ugly in their misogyny – The Kid playing a cruel trick on Apollonia to get her to strip in jump into a lake for instance, before he takes off on his motorcycle (he comes back, but still). The Kid basically treats Apollonia like garbage throughout the movie – but she’s still there cheering for him in the end. Even worse, when Morris has an underling literally throw an annoying woman he slept with into a dumpster. It’s hard not to watch those scenes and be offended.
Then there is Prince himself – and, to be honest, he wasn’t much of an actor in the film. Some musicians can translate to acting careers easily – but most cannot. And here, Prince couldn’t (perhaps he got better (but I’m not going to watch Under the Cherry Moon or Graffiti Bridge anytime soon to find out). His basic acting is to look at the camera with a solemn look on his face to gain sympathy. Morris Day is a hell of a lot more fun than Prince is in the movie – although to be fair, that’s all that is asked of him, whereas The Kid is a seemingly complex character, even if Prince wasn’t capable of portraying that.
The film basically screams 1980s in many ways – the music, of course, but also the visual style – which is garish and brightly colored. I can see why 1980s’ nostalgists love the film so much – is basically is the 1980s in one movie. The music – which won Prince a richly deserved Oscar in the now defunct category of Original Song Score – is the reason to see Purple Rain, which is far from a masterpiece, but as a 1980s time capsule – and a document of what made Prince so special, it’s tough to beat.