Purple Rain (1984, Albert Magnoli)
There aren’t any reservations to my love of Prince, but the cutesy “business” that’s always surrounded his career, as with so many other rock & roll icons, is to me a waste of time. I’ve never even been a huge fan of his music videos, most of which (in contrast to those of, say, Madonna) are serviceable and little else. [2020 note: Who wrote this? Surely not me, a person who’s fully aware that culture peaked here.] The best way to enjoy Prince is in the moment with his music, or him on stage as a consummate live performer, with no stylistic distractions. Sure, Purple Rain has some merit as a piece of pure (and puerile) camp, but such things seem reductive to the extremely imaginative music of a master, a pop genius. His music so outpaces his acting and the film itself that the story — about a struggling musician attempting to make waves at a hot Minneapolis nightclub, natch, while besieged by girl troubles (provided by Apollonia Kotero, who admittedly is stunningly beautiful) and a violent father — makes little sense.
That’s because this self-absorbed project revolving around a self-absorbed man (Prince’s character, whether Prince himself or not) is an inherent contradiction in a number of ways: that between amateurishness and professionalism, fantasy and reality, camp and pretension. Prince was always what they’d call a “professional,” from his first records in the late ’70s, so to see him lending his fame to such a completely out-of-touch and inept film harks back to the pre-A Hard Day’s Night days of Elvis and his endless parade of cinematic cash-ins. Prince had every right to feel like an important and great musician, which seems the narrative thesis here, but he lacks the screen presence necessary to make for a convincing movie star. If nothing else makes this abundantly clear, witness how the Purple Rain album seems more prescient and progressive with each passing year whereas the film only seems to grow increasingly antique.
The self-conscious silliness provided by the subplot about Morris Day (he of the Time, gamely taking the villain role here but only succeeding in crafting some sort of Saturday morning caricature of a half-assed adversary to The Kid, our hero) is rife with what in the mid-’80s were typical tropes of mainstream comedies: casual sexism alternately poo-pooed and played for laughs, a strange modernized variation on Three Stooges slapstick, and various attempts at thematic edginess colliding with schoolboy humor. All this clashes enormously with the heart of the picture, a meditative series of Prince-heavy reaction shots (indeed, much of the film really consists of endless reaction shots) dealing with his angst about the fraying relationship between his curiously young parents, a permissive enabling mother and wife-beating alcoholic dad, who’s of course a songwriter (shades of Murry Wilson) who resents his son’s work. It all coalesces in the father’s attempted suicide, a moment of lashing out that plays with telefilm melodrama in context, but today carries too many uncomfortable suggestions of what would happen between Marvin Gaye and his father later in the year. Measured against actual, incomprehensible tragedy, movie tragedy can seldom measure up, and the film’s trite perspective on all this hurts most of all.
The performances are ridiculous, and given that there are sparks of joy and freedom in Prince and Kotero’s acting, a welcome looseness in Day’s, not to mention some merit in the work of brooding Clarence Williams III as the embattled father, one is strongly tempted to blame Albert Magnoli’s clueless direction. It’s particularly maddening to see a fine actor like Williams wasted on one of the rare occasions he wasn’t typecast post-Mod Squad; a glance at Magnoli’s filmography reveals nothing of note outside of this film and a few pickups on Tango & Cash. But it’s doubtful that anyone, least of all Prince, could’ve done much better with such a hackneyed and silly plot. Of all the performers in the film, in acting terms only Wendy Melovin and Lisa Coleman, part of the backbone of the Revolution, acquit themselves completely with sly and intelligent performances. But their presence in the story emphasizes how ridiculous the script is, attempting to incorporate the real lives of these musicians while remaining mostly ignorant of what could have been a fascinating exploration of their relationships and inner lives. Instead there’s some made-up nonsense about Prince not wanting to “let” Wendy and Lisa work on their own music, a rough draft of “Purple Rain,” which is of course revealed in his magnanimous triumphant climax — but in real life Prince wrote every note of “Purple Rain” himself. One can’t easily help noticing either that the Revolution is depicted as a constantly fighting, troubled unit but when they’re not acting — when they’re on stage falling into their usual roles as performers — they are plainly a cooperative band that fused together masterfully. It’s baffling, really.
It’s not hard to see the motives behind creating Purple Rain, of course, and not just for Prince himself. Seeing a band like Prince & the Revolution is inspiring, enough so that you kind of want there to be some great rock & roll mythology behind it all. But a simple performance film would’ve served us better. Even the Beatles never dramatized their own “origins,” because they were always conscious of the air of mystery that made them special. Would that Prince had done the same. Though the iconography of Purple Rain is strong — the music, the sweaty club, the kiss, the woman, the fights, the passion, etc. — it never rises above the awkwardness created by the dichotomy between the talented amateur Prince is depicting himself as here and the enormously brilliant artist he clearly is. The whole thing might well have made more sense if Prince wrote underneath his abilities (though thank heavens he didn’t), or if he’d used some of his earlier tunes, which displayed promise without flaunting his future mastery of the form. Instead, we have the Revolution constantly being threatened with being kicked out of First Avenue, the club that in real life ushered Prince into prominence, and then they take the stage and play gobsmackingly incredible, advanced tunes like “Computer Blue,” “Darling Nikki,” and “The Beautiful Ones,” and the entire enterprise sort of collapses on itself.
I’ve been a hardcore Prince fan for about a decade, so I came to him fairly late but I consider myself sort of obsessive, gathering bootlegs and poring over unreleased material while celebrating nearly all of his close-to-flawless released ’80s work. So it’s sort of odd that I never actually saw Purple Rain until this year, but I suppose I’d always feared that I’d feel this way about it. As great as the music is, the one-dimensional film ends up swallowing it whole and tampering with its innate appeal; stick to the records, please. I would say I can’t imagine who the prime audience really is for this film, but actually I can. It’s Prince himself — this is little more than a ruthless act of self-aggrandizement, and the man’s phenomenal music, which was here at its peak, deserves better treatment.