when I saw his debut feature film "Purple Rain" on its opening weekend back in the summer of 1984, I entered completely as a skeptic and exited completely as a convert!!
Just last week, as I was spending a day home sick from work, I woke up from sleeping most of the day away to gathering myself together upon the love seat in my living room. I turned on the television and began flipping through some channels and I stumbled upon "Purple Rain," as it was being show on the channel VHI CLASSIC. While I typically cannot stand and have no patience watching theatrical films on regular television due to the plethora of commercials, and most importantly, all of the edited content, I somehow found myself watching most of the film regardless. Dear readers, I wish for you to know that "Purple Rain" is a film that I have not seen in perhaps over 20 years, primarily because I had seen it enough to last three lifetimes between my teen years and mid 20's (and for that matter, the actual album is possibly the one Prince album that I listen to the least because of the very same reason--believe me, I wore that album OUT).
As I sat on the love seat that afternoon watching the movie again, reciting dialogue and remembering scenes that have been so burned within my brain, I somehow found myself feeling so enormously moved, more than I have ever been with this film, especially once the film reached its towering climax as The Kid (played by Prince), fronting his band The Revolution, performs the now titanic title song to the sight of arms swaying slowly back and forth in the air in unison. In a strange way, it was almost as if I was seeing the film for the first time again even though while watching, I mentally traveled back to the day when I actually did see the film for the very first time. For me, I have always felt that "Purple Rain" is one of the greatest rock films ever made and seeing it again, only re-confirmed that opinion. But somehow, this time, the film felt to reach an even higher greatness, yet not through the golden haze of nostalgia. I think the greatness I saw and most importantly felt, illustrated that the film hit a certain peak that perhaps I can see even better now that I am older...30 years older, to be exact. So, at this time, please allow me to celebrate Director Albert Magnoli's "Purple Rain," which will reach its 30th Anniversary later this year, as it is a masterful achievement, a supremely audacious project on a variety of levels and truly one of the most electrifying films I have ever seen.
Now what may arrive as quite the surprise for you, I was not always a disciple and devotee of Prince. Quite the contrary, there was a time, so long ago, when I could not stand the sight of him. I cannot explain why my initial reaction to Prince was something so vehemently primal but even so, I just hated him. Perhaps I was just too young to even begin to comprehend a figure like him (I was) but he just flew in the face of absolutely everything that I felt to be "right" or "normal" in the world. Prince was a character who just looked strange, who sang weird songs, and was obsessed with all things sexual, making him someone I wanted to steer clear away from. I remember having read that Prince was attempting to make a motion picture somewhat based upon himself and I just found the prospect of such a feature to be the most gigantic form of self-aggrandizement that I could even conceive of. And so, I scoffed endlessly at even the mere idea of such a movie, rejecting it entirely sight unseen. But in the summer of 1984, when I was 15 years old, all of those opinions would change forever in just two short hours.
The first calling card for "Purple Rain" was the release of the accompanying album's first single, the groundbreaking "When Doves Cry," around two full months before the film opened. All summer long, that song was inescapable and try as I might, I slowly...very slowly...found myself being taken in by the song, even though I still rejected Prince altogether. By the time the film was about to be released, "Purple Rain" had already received a rave review from Rolling Stone magazine, a great sign to be sure. But for me, it would have to take the opinions of the two I treasured the most regarding matters such as these, the late, great Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. I was so convinced that both of them would easily see through what was obviously a vanity project and blow it off of the screen so completely that Prince himself would be sorry for ever having thought of an idea so ridiculous.
So, imagine my surprise when I looked at the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun Times on Friday, July 27, 1984 to discover that not only did Siskel and Ebert LOVE the film, they each awarded it four stars and named it one of the best films of 1984. That did it! Now, I just had to see the thing for myself and find out exactly what this was all about.
On opening weekend, I ventured to the Evergreen Plaza shopping mall and their four screen movie theater, to surprisingly find myself staring at an ticket booth line that was nothing less than EPIC. I waited and waited and waited, listening to the intense buzz of the crowd around me and finally, I found myself brave enough to ask the girl in front of me exactly which movie this ticket booth line was for, because seriously it could not have been for "Purple Rain," right? And so, the girl's response?
I stood corrected.
By the time I entered the theater and found my seat, the screening I attended had completely sold out! Even having seen George Lucas' "Star Wars" (1977) and Steven Spielberg's "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981) on their respective opening days, as well as other notable releases including the Chicago EVENT movie, John Landis' "The Blues Brothers" (1980), my memory is telling me that the energy in the room for "Purple Rain" was unlike anything I had experienced before. The din of the crowd only became louder when the lights went down, the theater screen curtain opened and after a few trailers, the Warner Brothers logo appeared on the screen with the following words announced over the theater speakers..."Ladies and gentlemen...The Revolution!"
And then, there he was. The form and shape of Prince, wielding his guitar and engulfed in a cloud of dramatic lighting and stage fog extolling the now iconic opening, "Dearly beloved...we are gathered here today to get through this thing called 'life'..." Dear readers, at that very instant, the theater ERUPTED! It was as if the man himself was standing in person...just...right...THERE! By the time the film's opening song "Let's Go Crazy" hit its full thunderous stride, that theater was completely on its feet and I was swept away within the wave of adoration and excitement, the screams and shrieks, the flurry of images and the wall-to-wall sonic blast of booming rock and roll power. Once Prince hit that now iconic guitar solo that closes the song, my mind was completely blown apart.
The plot of "Purple Rain" is now most familiar. Set in Minneapolis, "Purple Rain" stars Prince as The Kid, the nameless and ferociously driven and darkly troubled musician and front-man of The Revolution. The Kid and his band hold a regular performing slot at the legendary First Avenue and & 7th Street Entry nightclub but their tenure is threatened by the increasing musical sensationalism of rival band The Time, as led by the flamboyant hipster gigolo Morris Day and his trusty sidekick and personal valet Jerome Benton. Additionally, there is tension within The Revolution as The Kid's musical vision has increasingly begun to alienate audiences, and his stranglehold over the band's musical direction has caused considerable friction between himself and budding songwriters, guitarist Wendy Melvoin and keyboardist Lisa Coleman.
Meanwhile at his home, in which he shares with his parents, The Kid's domestic life is a nightmare. His Father, Francis L. (a disturbing Clarence Williams III), a failed musician, repeatedly inflicts verbal and physical abuse over The Kid's Mother (Olga Karlatos), resulting in similar abusive and self-destructive tendencies within The Kid and those around him.
All of the disparate areas of The Kid's life converge upon the arrival of Apollonia (played by Apollonia Kotero), a new girl in town who houses huge dreams of making it as a singer and soon finds herself falling in love with The Kid as well as becoming the object of affection, as well as the potential lead singer of Morris Day's new girl group, both of which send The Kid spiraling into grim despair and at times, uncontrollable anger.
"Purple Rain" culminates in a harrowing family tragedy and a spectacular concert performance of voluminous uplift, deliverance and possible redemption as The Kid comes to terms with his family, his band, his love for Apollonia and himself.
After all of my nay-saying, Prince and his movie had me in the palms of their respective hands within the film's first seven minutes and never let me go. After it was all over, I went immediately to the record store in the mall and bought the album.
During the remainder of 1984, I saw "Purple Rain" in the movie theater four more times, something that was nearly unheard of within my family as we just never went out to see films more than one time. By the holiday season, the film was released on the home video market, even as it was still raking in the money theatrically. From that point, I could not even begin to tell you how many times I have seen the film and all of these memories that I have shared with you came flooding back to me instantaneously as I sat at home, sick from work, watching this movie all over again.
When I was 15, I knew that "Purple Rain" was something unusually special. The film was such a visceral experience as well as one that fully broadened my horizons musically, socially, and even sexually as the film possessed a true and honest sensual allure that was not "dirty" in the least but deeply erotic, from the carnal concert sequences and to the film's one love scene (in which Prince is fully clothed and Apollonia is fairly clothed) remains one of the most smoldering sex sequences I have seen to date. Even with all of that being said, "Purple Rain" receives my highest praise for the simple fact that is was just one of those movies that transcends just being a movie. "Purple Rain" became an experience!
That said, and as affected as I was over and over again, I do not remember ever finding myself to be as overwhelmingly moved as I was just this past week. Let me assure you, dear readers, my feelings were not filtered through the haze of nostalgia. I realized that when I was 15, I took the entire film at face value. But now, with the passage of time, having lived life, built a greater knowledge and gaining an experience that I just did not have at 15, the greatness of "Purple Rain" has only continued to reveal itself as being a motion picture that almost re-defined he rock musical as well as what it means to be a truly audacious film. And furthermore, it is a considerably much darker and more provocatively adult experience than it is given credit for.
As a rock musical, "Purple Rain" is superbly first rate. The actual songs of "Purple Rain," for which Prince won an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score, are so meticulously composed with the full knowledge that they have to connect with the audience on the very first listen and Prince straddled the line between accessible mass appeal while fully retaining his idiosyncratic aesthetics brilliantly. Every single song is firmly story driven yet can completely stand independently from the film. They are instantly memorable and connect with the viewer just as rapidly and Director Albert Magnoli has rendered each selection with an urgent vibrancy that makes the beautifully staged and filmed concert sequences practically leap off of the screen.
The choice of having "Let's Go Crazy" open the film was a masterstroke as it also serves as a purpose of intent for the audience in the movie theater (or now at home). It is as if the film is literally saying to the audience, "Let's go crazy!!!!" That the film you are about to see will blow you away and then some, so lose all of your inhibitions and have a great time. Additionally, Magnoli wisely remembers that he does indeed have a story to tell and within the film's full opening seven minutes, which is a spectacularly edited sequence (also by Magnoli), Magnoli ensures that the tone, environment, and all of the film's major characters are fully established, grounding the audience for the story while simultaneously lifting us out of our seats with the music.
And what incredible music it is from one end of the film to the other. The whirlwind romance of "Take Me With U." The slow burn and explosive finish of the pleading "The Beautiful Ones." The dark carnal funk of "Computer Blue" and the infamous "Darling Nikki." The near zoot suit swagger of The Time's "Jungle Love" and the explosive, exuberant and sublimely ridiculous "The Bird." The cry for help that is the aforementioned "When Doves Cry." The redemptive and victorious one-two punch finale of "I Would Die 4 U" and "Baby I'm A Star." And of course, "Purple Rain," the epic song itself, a song that still moves mountains to this day as it is a soaring powerhouse and provides the film with an outstanding catharsis after all of the darkness that has come before it. It feels like the rays of the brightest shining sun are blazing through the nightclub, piercing the celluloid and engulfing the audience in an all encompassing divinity. All of those songs are present and accounted for within the film, a testament to Prince's peerless songwriting powers.
Beyond the music of the film, the audacity of "Purple Rain" further stems from the fact that it was even made at all, especially during 1984, when music was decidedly segregated. To think, that Prince, Albert Magnoli and all participants involved had the audacity to think and believe that they could make a major motion picture starring a musical figure who was essentially a cult artist and a Black cult artist at that! There was no precedent for having such a figure reach out to capture middle America, despite the home base location of Minneapolis. It was a conception that was so untested and so unproven that middle America, and really, the nation at large, would even see the film at all, let alone repeatedly, that the entire conception of "Purple Rain" was a tremendous risk. This fact again makes the "Let's Go Crazy" sequence so especially crucial, because if Magnoli and Prince could not make their case as immediately as possible, they would be dead in the water to be certain. But thankfully, all parties involved, and especially Prince, were so staggeringly brazen and bold enough to disregard any and all barriers, completely re-write the rules and just blasted full speed ahead with a confidence that was supremely unwavering. Simply stated, they gave us an experience that we had never quite seen before...even for those who were already completely in tune with the "secret" of this artist.
Delving even further, "Purple Rain" is the-culmination of everything that had existed within the musical universe Prince had been building over the course of five albums, in addition to the concepts, characters and music of The Time and Vanity 6 (re-christened "Apollonia 6" for the film), all of which Prince created. Many representations of Prince's growing iconography are also present throughout the film, from the sparkling white cloud guitar that Apollonia presents to The Kid as a gift all the way to Morris Day's Stacy Adams shoes. From the multi-ethnic and multi-gender bands and musicians to, most crucially, the multi-ethnic/multi-gender/multi-generational make up of the audiences throughout the entire movie, almost feels as if "Purple Rain" is the visual representation of Prince's utopian vision in the track "Uptown" from the "Dirty Mind" (released October 8, 1980) album.
Another element that sets "Purple Rain"apart from other rock movies, as well as all three of Prince's subsequent films is how Albert Magnoli instills a gritty sense of realism within the grandeur, thus grounding the entire proceedings firmly enough so we can see these characters existing in a very real world. While we see the film's protagonists primarily in the nightclubs, Magnoli also places them in public on the Minneapolis streets, within a shopping mall, in lower end apartments and houses and of course in rural Minneapolis where Apollonia, in a lusty and funny sequence, jumps into the frigid waters as to purify herself in Lake Minnetonka.
And just as the characters are inserted into the community of Minnesota, that very community floods the inner sanctum of the nightclubs thus creating an environment that is symbiotic in nature. Like the turbulent, troubled characters that populated Director John Badham's "Saturday Night Fever" (1977), everyone in "Purple Rain," from the performers to the audience, all band together, searching for and sometimes finding a sense of communion and even salvation together.
"Purple Rain" is also a film of intense discipline. We see the rivalry and competition between the bands, the interpersonal conflicts within The Revolution and how those specific elements are compounded when confronted with an economic reality that exists within the nightclub scene. As First Avenue and 7th Street Entry's owner Billy Sparks explains to The Kid matter-of-factly, "I've got three acts. I don't need four. So, one of y'all has got to go. What would you do in my position?" That precarious position of possibly being cut from a well earned and visible musical slot in a prime nightclub location provides us a view into the extreme work ethic that exists for these characters. In addition to performing, we essentially only see these bands rehearsing, working and striving to make it. Drugs are never even mentioned in the film-a rock movie novelty-- and alcohol is rarely seen as well. Music is their lifeline, especially for The Kid...but a little more on that later.
In a strange way, many of the actual acting performances also contribute to the film's stark reality. While I will speak more to Prince's performance in a bit, most of the actors in "Purple Rain" are not professional actors in the least. Morris Day and Jerome Benton are clearly the most natural and relaxed in front of the camera, as their rapport, especially in the brilliantly realized variation of Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First?" routine, provided the film with many of its greatest highlights. As for many of the other participants, including Apollonia Kotero, Wendy Melvoin, and Jill Jones who portrays a First Avenue waitress who harbors a long crush upon The Kid, they provide the film with line readings that are...frankly..even worse than wooden. Some line readings are even flat out terrible. And yet somehow that does not deter from the film as a whole and also even kind of adds to its charm, as what you see is what you get! There is no artifice in these performances, nothing feels like a put-on and they are filled with such earnestness that the good will is infectious. One cannot deny how hard they are working at something at which they are so untrained. They are fully at the service of both Magnoli and Prince's artistic visions, and that sense of camaraderie and support translates wonderfully to the immense spirit of the entire film.
But "Purple Rain" is not all dance, music, sex and romance. Like I said, on my latest viewing of the movie, I found myself to be emotionally affected in a way and on a level that I have not been before. For a movie that was so popular in 1984, and so beloved to this day, it strikes me now at how dark and disturbing of a film it truly is. Even visually, as you watch the movie, notice how Magnoli utilizes his set design, color palette and cinematography to literally darken as the story line grows more troubling. On a thematic level, and like The Who's "Tommy" (released May 23, 1969) and the accompanying Ken Russell film version from 1975, where the issues of post war England, child abuse and possibly autism have become clearer for me as I have grown into adulthood, "Purple Rain," at its core, is a film that compassionately explores the cycle of abuse.
"Purple Rain" is presented as a semi-autobiographical film where we are simultaneously gathering a peek inside Prince's inner world and background while he also grows his evolving persona and mystique. While Prince himself has expressed in one of his rare interviews that his own Father did not brandish a gun like the character Francis L. does in the film, Prince also released a grim song in 1994 entitled "Papa," where he says plainly, "Don't abuse children...or else they turn out like me." The psychological drama and underpinnings within "Purple Rain" are especially provocative, powerful and unsettling, which leads to probably one of the most audacious elements of the film itself: The Kid is not a traditional film hero in any conceivable way.
In many ways, The Kid is a character that would make you want to stone the movie screen. He is truly narcissistic, aloof, relentlessly demanding of everyone around him, unfair, sexist, and often cruel to those closest to him. His relationship with Apollonia is one where everything has to occur and unfold upon his terms. He always has the upper hand, whether during those aforementioned hijinks by Lake Minnetonka, or moments of sexual intimacy, and he definitely wants to keep a certain hold on Apollonia's possible singing career. It can even be inferred that he would rather she not be a part of his musical world at all. Yet, when she does step out on her own to claim her own space in the world when she decides to front Morris Day's new female singing group, The Kid feels threatened and then, lashes out in violence. What stops us from indeed stoning the movie screen is that while we hate his behavior, we completely understand his behavior and also sympathize with him because he is a victim of abuse himself. The Kid is copying a stream of learned behaviors inflicted upon himself and his Mother throughout his lifetime and it is all he knows, making his social skill set decidedly weak and unstable.
The Kid's inner turmoil at what he fears he is destined to become and feelings that he is unable to change himself provides "Purple Rain" with a deeply painful self-portrait to regard and also provides the film's songs with a greater storytelling task. For every character within the movie, we can see that music is their life and livelihood, especially so for The Kid. All of the songs The Kid performs are extensions of his psychological state as the lyrics speak the words that he is unable to just say plainly. While "Let's Go Crazy" is the rave-up songs like "The Beautiful Ones" and "Computer Blue" resonate even greater because they detail his loneliness, isolation and his desperate need to connect, which again creates a musical world in which only he exists and leaves no room for his band or even the audience, which places him in professional jeopardy with Billy Sparks. "The stage is no place for your personal shit, man!!!" admonishes Sparks after The Kid viciously attacks and abuses Apollonia from the stage with "Darling Nikki." "This is a business, and you too far gone to see that yet! I told you before, you're not packin' them in like you used to. No one digs your music but yourself, " Sparks continues. And for the final coup de grace, Sparks lays everything on the line with the statement, "Look around you. No one's diggin' you. Oh, buddy, what a fuckin' waste. But, like father, like son."
No one digs your music but yourself. Like Father, like son.
These are just two of the demons that plague The Kid throughout "Purple Rain" as the fullness of his existential crisis is struggling to find the answers to the questions which ask, "Who am I?" and "What will I become?" His inner pain is all consuming and grows even moreso as the film continues. Even music begins to fail to provide The Kid with solace as he is unable to drown out the demons that rage upstairs in his home and he cannot drown out the demons in his mind elsewhere. I think that this conflict is indeed the soul of "Purple Rain" and here is where Prince proved himself to be a most compelling and deeply empathetic actor.
True, some of Prince's line readings are not the best, here and there. But I did think that his backstage argument with Billy Sparks was a particularly good scene. Possibly his best dialogue driven scene is the one where The Kid confronts Francis L., finding him playing a mournful piano piece and then discussing the nature of his Father's music and marriage itself ("Never get married," says Francis L. with grave finality). Clarence Williams III's intimidating gravitas (just look at how his hands tremble, a subtle motion implying alcoholism) forces Prince to raise his game and the effect is sobering.
Where Prince shines the greatest as an actor is not through the dialogue but through his physicality, his body language and especially through his eyes as he is able to convey a maelstrom of emotions very simply and powerfully. I loved the moments after "Darling Nikki" where he rages from the stage and the camera is seemingly forced to keep pace with him as he races to the dressing room and ferociously prowls the room back and forth, plops into his barber shop seat and then, rapidly launches himself out of it to prowl all over again. Then there is The Kid's psychological breakdown late in the film after that aforementioned family tragedy which I will not spoil for the uninitiated--just a powerfully unhinged display.
But, it is truly in those quiet, interior moments where Prince shines at his very best. The scenes where he comforts his Mother. The scenes where other characters rage at him or warn him and he sits silently taking everything in, knowing they are correct but he's too driven and stubborn to admit it. Just seeing his eyes watering in the aftermath of his breakdown, as he slowly pulls himself together after being so demonstrably damaged. I think that Prince just nailed the pain and confusion of children affected by the cycle of abuse and being adult enough to know what that cycle is and the part they now play within that cycle. How do children ever survive experiences such as these anyway? How do these children move forwards in life? As The Kid wrestles with who he is and who he fears he is destined to become, as well as confronting the demon that suicide may provide the release that love and music apparently cannot deliver anymore, those very questions appeared to me. And before I knew it, I began to experience emotions I had never felt during "Purple Rain" before.
The film's finale, which of course features the song "Purple Rain" in its full glory and in a mostly unbroken close-up sequence, is purely transcendent. For The Kid, he has reached an emotional depth that had previously eluded him as he finally embraces the act of letting go, to admitting his failings, to completely shedding his skin to reveal the truth of his spirit, and then, finding the place to forgive and most importantly, to ask for forgiveness. It is a sequence of stunning release, for the characters, for the audience within the film and for all of us watching. And for the first time, tears began to well in my eyes. Wondering if this reaction was just a fluke, I recently purchased the 20th Anniversary DVD (the only copy of the film I have ever owned was the original VHS version I received as a Christmas gift in 1984) and re-watched it in its entirety and the reaction was exactly the same. Truly an amazing feat for a film 30 years old and again one I have seen countless times.
Albert Magnoli's "Purple Rain" is a film about tension and release, abuse and healing, isolation and community, subjugation and surrender, disintegration and reconciliation, crippling darkness and blinding light, as well as the transformative power of mighty love and even mightier music. Aside from Prince's extraordinary concert film "Sign O' The Times" (1987), how I wish his other two narrative driven features-the black and white/1940's inspired/Parisian set "Under The Cherry Moon" (1986) and the quasi "Purple Rain" sequel/fantasia "Graffiti Bridge" (1990)--even approached the arena "Purple Rain" originated. But, even so, we do have this film, not simply Prince's greatest cinematic achievement but truly a film for the ages.
As he sings in "I Would Die 4 U," Prince informs us that "I'm not a human/ I am a dove/ I am your conscious/I am love/All I really need is 2 know that U believe."
1n 1984, in 2016 and forever more, I believe.
Scott Powhatan Collins was born and raised in Chicago, IL and is a current resident of Madison, WI .He is a lifelong enthusiast of music, books and films. Hisbrain is filled with DJ dreams, filmmaking fantasies, literary luxuries and all manner of useless information. He chronicles his thoughts and reviews on his two blog sites Synesthesia (http://www savagejukebox.blogspot.co.uk) and Savage Cinema (http://wwwspcsavage.blogspot.co.uk), and is always on the lookout for the next piece of art to blow his mind and capture his heart. –