177 – Purple Rain (1984) as Quality Cinema

purple rain

Here it is, my Lovefest entry from The Dissolve’s comment section, presented in its entirety. Didn’t turn out exactly as I imagine, but I finished it, and I feel pretty good about that:

Lovefest 41: Purple Rain, or More Than a Soundtrack

Thirty years ago (almost exactly), the gods of cinema (and Warner Bros.) bestowed upon an unsuspecting public the majesty of Purple Rain. For those of you who don’t know – and really there’s no excuse – Purple Rain stars Prince as “The Kid,” a young Minnesotan musician struggling to find an audience for his audacious blend of funk, rock, and pop. The clientele at First Avenue, a Minneapolis nightclub, are more interested in the polished choreography and theatrics of Morris Day (as himself) than the raw sexuality The Kid leaves on-stage every night. Despite the objections of band members Wendy (Wendy Melvoin) and Lisa (Lisa Coleman), The Kid continues down his self-destructive path, pulling fresh-faced performer Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) along with him, in a situation all-too reminiscent of the abusive relationship between The Kid’s father and mother (Clarence Williams III and Olga Karlatos).

When Purple Rain was released in July of 1984 it was met with mostly middling reviews. Pauline Kael called Purple Rain “pretty terrible” in a review for the The New Yorker (that isn’t actually as scathing as that quote would suggest), while Leonard Maltin (who couldn’t possibly have been as out of touch then as he is now) decries a “soppy storyline and sexist, unappealing characters.” On the other hand, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel were both big fans of the movie when they reviewed it for Siskel and Ebert at the Movies, and both men included it in their top ten lists of 1984. The general consensus at the time seems to have been that the music is excellent, but the story is incredibly lackluster.

It is hard to disagree with this assessment, and certainly the first time I watched Purple Rain the thing I liked most about it was the soundtrack. A lot of the movie is laughable, but that is due to two main obstacles. The first obstruction is actually two problems: the performances of Prince and Apollonia. Neither – and I struggle to type this – “actor” is very skilled. Prince is a very odd fellow, and while he has a unique type of charisma, it does not translate well to dramatic acting. He spends most of the movie smirking shyly like a mischievous nymph, while Apollonia looks on with the most wooden expression this side of Treebeard. Hers is a beautiful visage, but it is not very expressive. The weird chemistry between Prince and Apollonia is meant to drive the story, but instead it raises more questions than anything else.

But bad acting isn’t the only thing that undermines what is secretly not a bad script by director Albert Magnoli and William Blinn. Purple Rain’s greatest strength – it’s soundtrack – is really it’s greatest weakness. The nine songs that The Kid’s band, The Revolution, plays are eminently exciting and catchy, exactly the kind of thing young, hip Minnesotans would be looking for from their local artists – especially ones dressed as crazily as the extras in First Avenue. As if Prince wasn’t already unbelievable in his role as The Kid (despite “The Kid” pretty much being “Prince”), the idea that people aren’t in love with his music is doubly absurd. The Kid ought to be a superstar already, and the concert sequences do nothing to dispel that notion.

But this is Lovefest, and the fact of the matter is that I unabashedly love Purple Rain in the face of its faults. And not just because of its more ridiculous aspects, like French-Michael-Cera-lookalike drummer Bobby Z or the hilariously terrible phenomenon that is girl-group Apollonia 6’s “Sex Shooter.” There is plenty of quality in Purple Rain. You just need to know where to look.

Let’s Go Crazy

“Let’s go crazy/let’s get nuts/Look for the purple banana/’Til they put us in the truck”

Right from the beginning, the film separates itself into two realities. “Let’s Go Crazy” features a standard “getting to know you” montage in which we are introduced to The Kid, Apollonia, and Morris Day all in quick succession. The Kid is a wild-child, Apollonia is a naive immigrant to the city, and Morris is a well-manicured mastermind. These characters may live in a city called Minneapolis, but it is not the Minneapolis of our world. This a dimension where people wear complicated leather costumes at all hours of the day, where choreography is as essential to music as the songs themselves, and where champagne is served in martini glasses.

This may not strictly be a parallel universe, but The Kid definitely behaves like it is one. Maltin’s argument that The Kid is unlikable holds water on the surface, but he exists in a subculture that is forming its own rules. Despite no longer drawing much of a crowd at First Avenue, he still has screaming fans lined up outside the club as he rides up on his purple motorcycle. In such an environment, how could he not be full of himself?

Take Me With U

“I can’t disguise the pounding of my heart/It beats so strong”

Then we contrast the bright neon of First Avenue with the dark, gritty real world that is The Kid’s home life. It is important to remember that The Kid is only a star in his relatively small community; this isn’t a movie about Prince – at least not the Prince of 1984. Bigger success may come for The Kid, but until then he lives at home with mom and dad. Set decorator Anne McCulley exchanges all of the flashy lights and colors of the city for the dark, drab, and dull suburbs. It’s here that we see The Real Kid, a young man who has spent his still-short life under the thumb of a bitter man who blames everyone else for his own failure as a musician.

Suddenly we understand the arrogance and bravado that The Kid displays around his band and his rivals. He has no control, no structure at home. Of course he’s going to lash out and take charge in whatever way he can. If that means exerting his influence on The Revolution, or using a young girl who ought to know better, so be it.

The Beautiful Ones

“Do you want him?/Or do you want me?/Cause I want you”

It’s time to talk about those rivals. The Time, and specifically Morris, are set up as the villains of the piece, and it is a good move, because Morris and his manservant, Jerome Benton, are often the most entertaining part of the film. They have excellent chemistry (honestly, Prince and Apollonia could have learned a thing or two from these guys), and while Magnoli sometimes treats them as buffoons, they are really quite sharp. Devious, yes, but sharp.

Magnoli does trust them enough to allow Morris and Jerome to shoulder most of the movie’s intentional comedy, including a blatant riff on Abbott and Costello’s classic routine “Who’s on First?” and a divisive scene in which Jerome tosses one of Morris’s groupies into a dumpster.

Computer Blue

“Wendy?/Yes Lisa/Is the water warm enough?/Yes Lisa/Shall we begin?/Yes Lisa”

That scene is indicative of a larger problem that Purple Rain has in its treatment of female characters. The dumpster toss is clearly played for laughs, and as a way to declare Morris and Jerome “The Bad Guys,” but there are few moments of female empowerment to offset this misogyny. Apollonia and The Kid’s mother are pretty lacking in agency, but we’ll get to that later. The only other women of note in the cast are Wendy and Lisa.

As the guitarist and keyboardist, respectively, of The Revolution, Wendy and Lisa (who would later go on to make music for film and television) perform the essential function of providing the band members with personality. Wendy especially turns in a strong performance, and asserts herself. The gals (is there a more dismissive term I could use? “Ladies?”) present a tough front as artists, but eventually they (once again, especially Wendy) are swallowed up by the movie’s inherent problem with women.

Darling Nikki

“It said thank you for a funky time/Call me up whenever you want to grind”

During one of the concert scenes Wendy gets on her knees and mimes felatio on The Kid as he rips a nasty guitar solo. This is after she makes a big deal about how dismissive The Kid is of her contributions to the band. It is a low point for the character of Wendy, but it is in service to the film’s fore-fronting of sexuality. Prince’s appeal as a sexual being makes no sense to me; I am a guy who is comfortable enough to admit when he thinks another man is attractive, but I just don’t see it when it comes to Prince. Maybe some of my fellow Dissolve commenters can explain.

But while the man isn’t quite my type, he certainly does it for a lot of people out there, including a large percentage of Purple Rain’s initial audience. And I can’t deny that there is heat to the sex scenes between the two leads, despite there being almost none present when they interact as human beings talking to one another.

When Doves Cry

“Maybe you’re just like my mother/She’s never satisfied”

The character of Apollonia (as opposed to the actress) is present solely to show how The Kid is falling into all of the same traps that his old man did. Apollonia is just like The Kid’s mother. Her lover treats her badly, yells at her, even hits her, but she can’t bring herself to stop loving him. When The Kid brings Apollonia to his home in the real world, she sees his parents laughing and cuddling. It is the first time we have seen the two not at each others’ throats, and while Apollonia thinks it is cute, The Kid considers it a “freak show.” Little does he know, he is entering into a freak show of his own. The characterization of Apollonia (and The Kid’s mom) is really weak screenwriting, meant only to provide insight into the well-rounded male characters, but she serves her purpose well.

In a lot of ways, Apollonia is a precursor to Shailene Woodley’s Aimee from The Spectacular Now. Cards on the table, I don’t love that film. I think Aimee, as written, suffers from a lot of the problems that Apollonia does, though Woodley does a better job of adding depth to her character than Ms. Kotero does (slightly better – I’m not as over the moon on Woodley as others).

I Would Die 4 U

“I’ll never beat you/I’ll never lie/And if you’re evil I’ll forgive you by and by”

But it is all meant to serve the film’s larger theme of father-son inheritance, and how we handle that. The song title “I Would Die 4 U” comes from one of the lines spoken by The Kid’s father (though I doubt when he said it he was imaging the number “4” and the letter “u”). When he says it to his wife, it is not so much a loving declaration as it is a threat. “I could make you happy, if you just believed in me,” he says, failing to recognize his own inability to believe in himself.

It is never clear what drove The Kid’s father from the music industry. His compositions are strong, but it was probably a combination of fear and hubris. “I don’t write ‘em down,” he says to The Kid when his son asks to read some of the older man’s music. “I don’t have to. That’s the big difference between you and me.” Of course, we learn the man is lying. And it’s those lies – lies told to others, lies told to oneself – that lead to an emotionally charged suicide attempt, and an awakening for The Kid.

Baby I’m a Star

“Before the night is through/You will see my point of view/Even if I have to scream and shout”

Only when faced with the reality of a closed off life, does The Kid that exists in First Avenue accept The Kid that lives in the suburbs. The arrogant mask combines with the conflicted, emotional heart, and The Kid finally gives the type of performance that may one day rocket him to stardom (even though it’s not really any more amazing than the performances from earlier in the movie). The honest feelings The Kid has been repressing throughout the picture come out in his soulful performance of “Purple Rain,” finally using the music Wendy and Lisa have written for him.

The audience is stunned. Even disaffected club owner Billy Sparks nods in approval. It’s not the reaction The Kid expects, but when he hears the cheers and accolades, and sees the woman that he loves with tears in her eyes, he knows that he’s found something meaningful. The Kid may be a lot like his father, but now that he can accept that fact, he can learn from his old man’s mistakes.

Purple Rain

“I only want to see you bathing in the purple rain”

Father/son stories are far from unique, and this one may not work as well in practice as it does in theory, but there is depth to mine if you so choose. Purple Rain isn’t a subtle movie, but even in it’s obviousness there are flashy of script and directorial greatness. And its merits are not limited to the story; there are amazing technical aspects that I do have the knowledge or eloquence to speak on effectively. Donald E. Thorin’s cinematography is excellent, especially in the concert sequences, but that’s for a smarter man to discuss. Or you could watch the movie with the commentary track by Thorin, Magnoli, and producer Robert Cavallo. The three men go into a lot of depth about the production, and heap unnecessary amounts of praise on the acting performance of Prince and Apollonia. I guess they are just really nice guys because surely they have eyes and ears. They made a movie for goodness sake.

Purple Rain won’t be for everyone, at least not on an unironic front. It has a lot working against it, but even for those who can’t get past all of Purple Rain’s faults there is still the amazing soundtrack album. And, of course, Bobby Z:

bobby z

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