Purple Rain (1984) / Drama-Musical
MPAA Rated: R for sexuality, nudity, some violence, and language
Running time: 111 min.
Cast: Prince, Apollonia Kotero, Morris Day, Clarence Williams III, Jerome Benton, Billy Sparks, Olga Karlatos, Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Matt Fink, Bobby Z., Jill Jones, Dez Dickerson
Director: Albert Magnoli
Screenplay: William Blinn, Albert Magnoli
Review published August 20, 2007
Prince's "Purple Rain" was my favorite album when it was released back in 1984. It remains my favorite album to this day. Needless to say, a great deal of my affection for the movie it serves as the soundtrack to directly correlates with my feeling toward the music contained within. However, even distancing myself from the music to view the film on its own terms, I still think it's pretty good stuff all in all, with a surprisingly resonant theme of a misfit man-child trying to find meaning in his life, getting no support from anyone, or at least, he rejects it when it is freely offered. The fact that it contains fantastic music to punctuate the inner turmoil he subjects himself too is just icing on the cake, and together, the movie and the soundtrack, have a synergy that feed off of each other until you can't think of one without the other. It's a time capsule film of a musical genius at the peak of his creativity. A vanity project from inception, but this one actually pays off -- Prince (Under the Cherry Moon) knew he had the talent to be a superstar, and after this film, so did everyone else.
Although the film itself is semiautobiographical, and most of the characters use their real names, Prince is only referred to as "The Kid", the singer and songwriter for a rising Minneapolis nightclub band called The Revolution. His music is often red hot, but has become increasingly esoteric to the club patrons, who are just out for a good time. The Revolution has a nemesis in the form of the ultimate party band, The Time, who regularly churn out feel-good funk that gets the crowd moving. The Time's leader, Morris (Day, Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back) seizes upon an opportunity to make a success of himself, creating an all-girl group that pushes forward tongue-in-cheek sexuality. Trouble is, the club only supports three acts (there is another act played by real-life Revolution-mate Dez Dickerson that is briefly showcased), and with this new girl bad a smash sensation, Worse, the leader of the girl group is none other than Apollonia (Kotero, Black Magic Woman), the woman The Kid has begun a romance with. The Kid is going to have to show he has what it takes to win over the fickle audience and disappointed club owner.
Although Prince is surprisingly adequate playing what is essentially a slightly more charismatic version of himself, it's obvious that his career as an actor was going to be far less successful than as a musician. The most charitable thing one can say is that he pulls off some fairly difficult scenes, and does allow his own character to be portrayed in an unsympathetic light from time to time, especially in his refusal to let anyone into his world without making them subservient to his ego. Of course, he is also sympathetic as well, and though plenty of his personal and professional life is shown during the course of the story, Prince keeps his persona and thoughts almost completely under wraps, adding to the pop star's overwhelming mystique. Even if you aren't keen on Prince's acting chops, there's no denying that, love him or hate him, when he's on stage, you can't turn away from the screen. Put a mic in his hand and he's electricity personified.
I've seen detractors of the film claim that, if one were to remove Prince's music from the film, that everyone would see that this is a very bad movie. I reject the validity such arguments, as this is a film about a man who channels nearly all of his creative energy and ability to cope with life through the words and feelings of his music. The music creates the mood and depth with which to gain perspective on his life, and the scenes of his life give meaning to the effect of his music, as well as his state of mind at the time he produces it. Why the hell would you want to judge a movie after you've removed its vitality? Does anyone think it's proper to judge Saturday Night Fever if you remove the dancing, Scarface if you remove the violence, or Beverly Hills Cop if you removed Eddie Murphy? This is a film about a musician trying to come up with music that his life and career depend on -- of course the movie will suffer through the removal of it!
The film's musical numbers go hand in hand with Prince's state of mind at various points in the film, obviously echoing scenes that come before. Under close analysis, I'll admit, it's a fairly flawed approach in some respects, as it seems unlikely that Prince's band would be completely in tune with songs they've barely had time to rehearse, particularly when he comes in to belt out his powerhouse number, "Purple Rain", which the band nails perfectly, even injecting violins that just aren't present. This is a case where artistic license is required, and given the artistry presented, well earned.
Purple Rain could be accused of being little more than a music video meant to push forward the notion of Prince as a star to be considered, but given his lack of popularity among people who didn't buy his hit album "1999", this was a sizable gamble by a major studio like Warner Bros' to back. It paid off, mostly because Prince delivered on the good promised and then some, pushing forth one hell of a funk-rock classic to last for all time, and becoming the dominant creative force in Black pop music for the next several years. If nothing else, Purple Rain is an essential film for capturing a music phenomenon in the making.
-- Followed by a thematic quasi-sequel, Graffiti Bridge (1990).
©2007 Vince Leo