Director: Albert Magnoli
By Roderick Heath
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called Purple Rain. Writing a few weeks ago about 80s music videos prompted me to finally check out the whole of Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson’s debut film, an unexpected smash that made its star exponentially more famous, provoked him to create what was arguably his greatest album, and earned Warner Bros great stinking wads of cash. Indeed Purple Rain is defined, justified, and sold by its offering a cavalcade of some of the most accomplished pop songs ever recorded — it feels like nearly half the film’s running time is devoted to simply recording musical performances, giving Prince unfettered freedom in demonstrating his astounding athleticism and stagecraft, capturing perhaps modern pop’s greatest master of a total conceptualised musical act at his height.
As a film, it’s rather less than a Prince, but it’s also no A Flock of Seagulls. It’s surprisingly entertaining a quarter-century later; indeed, from an era of pseudo-musicals (Fame, Flashdance, Footloose), Purple Rain is possibly the most classically shaped, a film about performance as well as including it, offering in its musical sequences a mode for its main character to express his inner self in a way he can’t otherwise. The ancient plotline of a young artist struggling against sabotaging rivals and personal demons to locate his mojo and break through, melded to a dash of autobiographical grit, works with some real intensity. Clearly under the spell of Saturday Night Fever (1977), director Magnoli fuses a carefully art-directed sense of vivid urban grit with fantastically stylised pop performing, and offers a troubled, even obnoxious hero whose skill as an artist is under the thrall of his egotism and frustration. It’s impossible to imagine Curtis Hanson’s Eminem vehicle 8 Mile (2002) without it either; Hanson’s film borrows the focused time span, the cursory love affair that results more in self-discovery than romantic bliss, the focus on familial frustration as a source of art and a retardant, and an arc that sees an acknowledged talent dip into morose decline before rising again on new inspiration.
Down on Minneapolis’ First Avenue, The Kid (the Purple One) and his band The Revolution (played by…The Revolution) are attractions at a hot nightclub. We know it’s hot because it’s filled with people with glitter make-up. The band seems to have missed their window of opportunity to ascend to stardom like other exciting local bands before them, and it’s put down to The Kid’s increasing distraction. They’re stuck as subordinate to headliners The Time, led by mincing egotist Morris (Morris Day). The opening sequences lay the essentials out with cinematic fluidity, introducing The Kid, getting dressed for his act and passing by the screaming fans at the club to perform, whilst Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), a wannabe who’s just left New Orleans to seek fame and fortune (in Minneapolis?), sneaks into the club to ask for a job as a performer. The Kid kills with his set, and gets Apollonia’s juices flowing, but on his return home gets clobbered in the mouth by his father when he tries to intervene in one of his parents’ common domestic rows.
It’s a forceful moment, what with Prince, in his signature jaunty purple jacket and puffy shirt, suddenly flat on his back, brought down to earth with the rudest of jolts. It offers immediate context for The Kid’s often appalling subsequent behaviour, his distrust of romantic entanglement, contempt for relying on others, and fear of failure leading to self-sabotage. His father, Francis L (Clarence Williams III), a failed musician and composer, is consumed by raging self-loathing that finds articulation only in abusing his wife and, finally, in attempted suicide. When The Kid takes Apollonia out for a ride on his too-sexy motorcycle, he tricks her into jumping into a lake and then toys with leaving her there. Yes, he’s a real charmer, girls.
Still, Morris is worse; he has his sideman and dogsbody Jerome (Jerome Benson) shove a disagreeably shrill lover in the dumpster and plots to take advantage of the cub owner’s irritation with The Kid by creating a girl-group to take The Revolution’s place on stage. Meanwhile The Kid’s two über-lesbian band mates, Wendy and Lisa (Wendy Malvoin and Lisa Coleman), keep prodding him to listen to a track they’ve composed, but The Kid keeps putting them off delicately: “I don’t want to do your stupid music!” When Apollonia tells him that she’s going to join Morris’ girl group, The Kid clobbers her in a moment of pure rage, and later taunts her from on stage with his grim portrait of a femme fatale, “Darling Nikki.” Having successfully alienated everyone in the universe, The Kid’s day looks just about done, and then his father tries to blow his own brains out. But whaddaya know? This convinces The Kid to give up reenacting his old man’s failings. He makes peace with Apollonia, and takes to the stage to do Wendy and Lisa’s piece with his lyrics, “Purple Rain,” before slaughtering all doubt of his capacity to rock a crowd with “I Would Die for You” and “Baby I’m A Star.”
Purple Rain was conceived by Prince whilst on tour, and the original screenplay by William Blinn, a regular writer for TV’s Fame, was entitled “Dreams.” But that template was heavily rewritten before production by Magnoli, presumably to turn it into a slicker, less dramatic vehicle, and perhaps playing up Prince’s awkward, even bitchy idea of a romantic male lead, which would soon be unleashed to much less popular effect in Under the Cherry Moon (1986). Take away the music and the filler bike-riding montages, and the film would run about a half-hour. Still, Purple Rain stands up with the likes of Jailhouse Rock (1956) as a superior artist-showcase drama, mostly because Magnoli’s slick visuals and quick pacing keep broad comedy and broad melodrama in an effective balance. Purple Rain tries to get at something which would manifest constantly throughout Prince’s career, his ambivalence with fame, his delight in creating art and refusal to see a difference between the musical and performative sides of that art (as opposed to the creeds of both grunge and hip-hop that would eventually marginalise his pop style, in part because both insisted stripping away the showbiz glitz Prince mastered was the true path to authenticity), balanced by his discomfort with the postures, intrusions, and presumptions that often attend such stardom. The Kid’s constant switchbacks in behaviour and ways of relating describe this ambivalence, and it’s no coincidence that the major step the narrative makes him take in moving towards real stardom is learning how to collaborate.
Max Steiner once nixed the idea for Four Wives (1939) of having a dead composer’s piece (which Steiner would have had to have written) hailed as a failure. In such a light, Prince’s willingness to let such great tracks as “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki” cited in this film as evidence of his increasingly erratic talent appears pretty brave, though it’s a bit hard to swallow those assessments. Still, they work well enough as aural expressions of a man whose wits are being shredded by his anxieties and mistrust, and whilst The Kid is often a huge prick, it’s all because, he’s real, dude, not some phony! The way the songs, so familiar from the album, are employed in the film is well thought out, from “I Would Die For You” spun from Francis’s aggrieved protestation, to the soul-searching of “When Doves Cry” propelling a you’re-tearing-me-apart montage of the Kid’s corrosive concerns. Legend has it that Prince concocted that unique, bass-free song, the biggest hit of his career, overnight, after Magnoli requested something to dub over the sequence.
The concept of making Purple Rain as a virtual neorealist movie, using nonprofessional actors enacting something like a version of their own lives, was not so unique for a pop movie, for it helps capture an authentic flavour, and also draws attention to its self-dramatising. Unfortunately, it also results in some awesomely bad acting. Old warhorse Williams gives the best performance, although Day, playing his villain as a simpering, comical jack-off who’s effortlessly seduced by the rhythm in the finale, comes pretty close to stealing the film. The joke, of course, is that Day and The Times were another of Prince’s projects, as was Apollonia Six, the girl group Morris supposedly starts. That had, of course, been Vanity Six before Vanity, who was to be in the film, quit it, and a replacement had to be hurriedly located. Prince plays increasingly sullen self-involvement and mounting hysteria competently, if with a pretty immobile face, so the film fittingly only forces him to emote where it counts—on stage.
One can’t really call Purple Rain a work that captures the man in all his dimensions. Despite his hilariously ornate outfits by Louis and Vaughn Marie-France, he plays things very straight, performing some songs stripped to the waist to show off his masculine physique, stowing away for the time being the androgyny that was his favourite indulgence and taunt to square audiences. Stowed alongside it is the edgier, politicised, anti-war polemic that infused his earlier albums, like Dirty Mind and 1999, and came back with Sign O’ the Times. Purple Rain is happy to be a vintage Reagan-era fantasy of success and harmony, portraying First Avenue as a multicultural wonderland. It’s easy to make fun of some the archly onanistic imagery that’s often fit for cutting into music videos, like a love scene that looks like Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and the endless motorcycle rides. You know the Kid’s in deep pain when he stands by a lake, legs wide apart, tossing stones in the water, frowning deeply. Yeah, keep your day job, Prince baby.
Otherwise, go in without great expectations and come out with a grin on your face.