Purple Rain May 1, 2016
In 1984, Prince was only getting started. He was hot off the success of 1982’s 1999, whose multiple hit singles catapulted him into stardom as one of rock’s most versatile (and most mysterious) performers. An artist in his shoes would simply capitalize on recent triumph and outdo themselves with their next release, hoping audiences would continue on their musical journey with them. But Prince, the founder of the Minneapolis sound and an icon of stylistic androgyny, was not your typical musician. With hopeful music executives by his side, a band of amateur filmmakers and actors was strung together to make a movie supplementing his subsequent album, Purple Rain. Resulting is a sonically electric, if dramatically stale, musical drama unforgettable in its vision.
Prince, then twenty-six, stars as The Kid, a young, troubled Minneapolis musician trying to make it in the music industry. With a slot at the famed First Avenue nightclub, he’s destined for superstardom — but with an unstable home life (his father is a drunken abuser) and a tense relationship with his bandmates (guitar player and keyboardist Wendy and Lisa are frustrated by his refusal to take their solo work seriously), there’s a good chance that he might derail a rewarding future before it can come to him.
Rivalry comes in the form of Morris Day (playing a fictionalized version of himself), a charismatic showman taking up another spot at First Avenue, and romantic interest is embodied by Apollonia (also playing a fictionalized version of herself), a hopeful torch singer possessing looks that could kill a man. So it’s a problem when Day oversteps his bounds and threatens to steal Apollonia away from The Kid — the latter, much as we love him, isn’t so levelheaded when confronted with jealousy. Fortunately, his musical responses to his setbacks are explosive.
As a child of the 2000s, one can say that my love for Prince is entirely different from that of your hip father in his fifties. A music lover whose fanaticism over the Purple One has lasted only for a reasonably brief amount of time (I’ve inherited most of his catalogue through my enthusiastic dad who’d rather not think about Prince’s defiant 1990s), indulging myself in his best music has been a central part of my life. And yet, viewing his iconic Purple Rain has escaped me for years.
Upon hearing of his tragic death a little over a week ago, I’ve been feeling empty and unappreciative, as if I didn’t quite treasure him enough when he was alive. I’m sure the majority of his fans feel that way, too — most thought we’d have him long into his nineties, still playing knockout shows around the time retirement home living would have been more suitable. Seeing him live was on my bucket list; I want to kick myself for not attending a concert and having an out-of-body experience in the process, but, once again, the opportunity never came to me. All I can do, for now, is surround myself in his music, his few interviews, his recorded live performances, and Purple Rain.
Though he had a brief film career in the 1980s (he disastrously directed and starred in Old Hollywood homage Under the Cherry Moon, Purple Rain semi-sequel Graffiti Bridge, and headlined a concert movie revolving around his Sign 'o’ the Times tour), Purple Rain remains to be his crowning cinematic achievement. A typical show business drama carrying the sweet scent of moviemaking inexperience, it avoids delving into so-bad-it’s-good-territory by depending enormously on Prince’s spiritual duende, and by wisely spending more time with musical sequences than with dramatic ones.
I’m iffy regarding its theatrics — The Kid’s tragic home life is more contrived than anything you’d see in a typical TV-movie-of-the-week, and his relationship with Apollonia is developed hastily and thinly — but the overarching ambience of Purple Rain made me forget to think about my many inhibitions. It’s much too lovable for skepticism. It has, in no doubt, dated in the thirty some years since its release, and it has, if anything, become a cultural artifact rather than an ageless mini-masterpiece akin to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
But we can also feel the abundance of feelings audiences of 1984 did while watching Purple Rain for the first time, most notably the feeling of being overcome with an affection for Prince. It’s like we’re discovering him all over again, becoming as new as he was to most at the time. And in some ways, its campiness and assemblage of démodé hairstyles and outfits has made it better; experiencing the sense of being transported to a completely different time is intoxicating and, dare I say it, fun.
So while Purple Rain is pretty bad — nobody in it can really act, the writing and directing amateur at best — it’s a good kind of bad, nostalgic and good-natured and passionate and sometimes thrilling. The soundtrack is stupendous, Prince a great presence. Kotero is lovely, and Day is an effective bad guy, if you can even call him that. The climactic rendition of the titular song is almost religiously potent.
In response, I can’t give Purple Rain a failing grade, or even an average one: I loved it, despite its shallow dramatics. Extreme bias sat on my shoulder throughout viewing, and I’ve been devoted to its soundtrack for years. But anyone buying a ticket to see the film in theaters again all these years later undoubtedly feels the same way. One doesn’t just like Prince; there’s a special kind of love for him that latches onto a part of the soul, never to unhook. I miss him terribly. But what an amazing legacy he’s left behind. A-