The year of 1984 was the true galvanization of the decade. It defined exactly what we remember the decade to be. It was the year where the pop culture identity of the 1980’s exploded with stuff like Michael Jackson’s Thriller breaking album record sales, television series like Miami Vice premiering, and films like Beverly Hills Cop, The Karate Kid, Ghostbusters, and The Terminator debuting. Then, there was the solidification of Prince becoming a monster success as both an electrifying musician, but also, at the box office with a film that, at one time, I watched once a week, every week for months. Purple Rain can be a surprising film if all you are expecting is just an entertaining rock music motion picture. There is a compelling, emotionally striking story within that was likely taken from Prince’s own life and embellished on screen.
Prince make his movie debut as The Kid, a Minneapolis club musician as alienated as he is talented. He struggles with a tumultuous home life with a failed musician father and The Kid’s own smoldering anger while taking refuge in his music and his steamy love for sexy Apollonia Kotero. He is opposed by rival band The Time, lead by the smooth talking and charismatic Morris Day who attempts to force The Kid out of the limelight and steal Apollonia away from him. The Kid’s life goes into a down spiral as everything falls apart even within his own band, the Revolution, forcing him down a turbulent road of survival and triumph.
Surely, this is one of the best movie soundtracks ever created. Beyond just all being contenders for smash hit singles, and having won Grammys and Academy Awards, these songs strongly serve the plot. Whether it’s lyrically or emotionally, they reflect the progression of these characters through this narrative. The film opens up on a high energy number of “Let’s Go Crazy” that would be perfect for jump starting a concert, of course. The music in the first act is very upbeat and lively as things are on an upswing for The Kid. He’s rocking the stage and falling in love with Apollonia, but the second act features more aggressive or introspective tracks such as the classic hit “When Doves Cry.” The final act gives us the emotional swelling of pain and resolution into a rousing celebration. This is one of those films where it’s stellar soundtrack will always ignite your desire to watch the film again, but there’s so much more to Purple Rain than just its incredible music.
The love story is wonderfully handled and progressed. There’s plenty of light-hearted wit and charm early on especially with the “purifying yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka” bit. Then, when The Kid is up on stage belting out “The Beautiful Ones,” staring directly at Apollonia with her eyes welling up, that’s an intense proclamation of passion which is beautifully executed. The romance then moves forward into more intimate, seductive territory before it all falls apart due to The Kid’s ego and him repeating his father’s self-destructive behavior, but it proves to not be the end of them. Prince and Kotero really have an endearing and charming chemistry that lights up the screen. It’s really the core narrative element of the film. Everything really centers around and reflects off of that.
The reversal is the volatile relationship between The Kid’s parents. What Clarence Williams III does in this film is on a whole other plane of riveting, powerful drama. He’s heartbreaking and tragic as Francis L., this man who has seen all of his dreams die because no one understood his music, and is just trying to keep his fractured self and marriage together. Yet, he grips on so tightly that he’s falling apart on every emotional level. The culmination of this is powerful and world shattering. Williams’ performance is mind blowing creating a sobering gravity and weight that no one expected going into this movie. There is nothing but pain magnified and compounded within every fiber of his performance. He is shockingly incredible to the point that I feel he deserved major awards for this performance, but he got no such recognition for it. Whenever I see him in anything now, he has my undivided attention because of this one performance.
Purple Rain is also a great encapsulation of the problems a band faces, internally. Clashing egos, mismatched personalities, and creative differences cause turbulence in even the best, most successful bands. We see Wendy and Lisa trying to make their own music, but The Kid just won’t take his own ego out of it to allow it. Apparently, this friction wasn’t far off from the reality in the band, and so, part of the effectiveness of these performances was likely due to that. Regardless, it adds further baggage to The Kid as he struggles with all of these passionate forces in his life, and something is bound to break.
On the lighter side of the film’s tone, you’ve gotta love the humorous antics of Morris Day and Jerome Benton. Their “who’s on first” style conversation about having a “password” for when Apollonia shows up is priceless and hilarious. Morris and Jerome lighten up the movie at key times without going over the top with it. Before I even knew Day was a musician, I saw him in The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, and found him sharp and funny there as well. I even first saw Morris Day & The Time in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, clearly motivating my interest in Purple Rain. Both Day and Benton have charisma to spare, and make for good foils for The Kid to contend with. Still, it’s great that they’re not relegated to being only comedy relief. Benton gets a serious moment that further digs at The Kid’s screwed up situation. We get some dimension to Morris with a few honest moments, and we see he has a genuine human factor. My favorite moment of Day’s is his moment of regret after saying a truly horrible thing about The Kid’s family after Francis has attempted suicide. In a single moment, he goes from being a cruel, cold hearted jerk to being a real human being with a conscience.
Under the direction of Albert Magnoli, Prince proves to be a very solid actor. Of course, his amazing work on stage comes naturally to him, but even then, there’s the added emotional context of his character interwoven with that. He incorporates the character’s mindset into the intensity of his on-stage performance. The most evident examples are the “Darling Nikki” and “Purple Rain” performances showing the different kinds of pain The Kid is feeling at those times. The first being of scorn, and the second being heartbreaking despair and sorrow. Off stage, Prince is damn good handling all of the heavy emotional weight of this story stunningly. This character is shown to be one with serious faults that he has to confront and overcome by the end, and it is all executed an honest realism. If Prince wasn’t that good of an actor, the film would not have worked, and would have been viewed as a lop-sided vanity project where the music was full of spectacle but the story and acting faltered. He was clearly fully committed to the quality and integrity of this picture, and put forth his all in every aspect to make it this great.
Yet, it is Albert Magnoli who put everything on track to be so great overall. The film does have style to spare in its stage performance visuals, and some of the sharp MTV style editing at times. However, Magnoli balances the sleek style and energy with a grounded, dramatic gravity. The characters are all well fleshed out, and have their passionate and conflicted qualities. The attempted suicide scene crashes down like a ton of bricks, and erupts the raw emotional intensity of this film. It is handled, along with the entire final act, with such weight and sincerity that it is what makes Purple Rain more than just a fun rock and roll movie experience. It gives a meaning to the story and the characters, giving this film a real touching, tender artistry that I cannot admire and praise enough. It really reflects the integrity and poignant detail that Prince puts into his music. He hardly ever does anything in his music without a full fledged commitment to quality.
The final musical performances are beautifully executed. “Purple Rain” is the culmination of everything The Kid has gone through, and he pours out every ounce of pain and sorrow in one epic, soaring song. The aftermath of the performance can still choke me up a little, especially when The Kid and Apollonia lock eyes in that hallway. Magnoli also does such the right thing with the editing in that performance because, aside from a few perfectly timed and well chosen shots of the audience, he keeps the focus on The Kid. It’s not until the song crescendos with the guitar solo that the shots open up and allow for everything to flourish on screen. “I Would Die 4 U” then comes as a breath of fresh air, and the correlating clips of The Kid visiting his sleeping parents in the hospital, organizing his father’s music sheets, and reconnecting with Apollonia earlier that day, bring a heart warming quality to the track. All of the music in this movie is excellent on its own, but when adding it into the emotional context of this film, these songs transcend into another level of touching impact.
I certainly do have to take Purple Rain in a sensationalized way. I have been close friends with a number of independent, small time local bands for the last decade, and these are people who aren’t making it rich on their music. So, if this film was entirely realistic, none of these bands would be wearing all of these flashy designer outfits that likely cost thousands of dollars. They would still put a great show, but what we see is an accurate representation of these acts as they were, on stage, in real life. I wholly understand stylistic choice that I’m sure no one really gave much thought to. Even then, despite owning a custom designed motorcycle and all of these flashy outfits, The Kid lives in his parents’ basement. Most wouldn’t pick up on those oddities, but with the perspective I have, yeah, it pops into my head. Yet, I don’t hold any of this against the film whatsoever because I understand where all of it is coming from, and clearly, Prince wasn’t concerned about blurring the lines between his reality and the film’s fiction. It all ultimately works towards the film’s stylish benefit.
To me, Purple Rain is a magnificent film. If you love the 1980’s in all its fashion, style, music, and movies, this is a movie that will excite and probably surprise you. Surely, Prince’s music isn’t for everyone, but this is undoubtedly a collection of some of his finest mainstream work. It is definitely one of the best soundtrack albums ever conceived and released. Even songs by The Time, Apollonia 6, and Dez Dickerson are solid pieces that give a little different flavor here and there. Yet, beyond all of that pop music excellence, you will find a film filled with love, heartache, tragic quality, dramatic weight, and artistic merit that is all perfectly blended together. It had been a long time since I watched Purple Rain before this review, and seeing it again reminded me why I so love this movie. It also reminded me why, nine years ago, I made this an imperative weekly watch for so long. Prince’s subsequent feature film outings would, reportedly, not be so good as he chose to direct and star in both Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge, the sequel to Purple Rain. You need not pay attention to those films because Purple Rain is fully entertaining and satisfying in so many abundant ways. This is an exciting, rock fueled picture with an admirable depth of substance and emotion. This film was 1984 through and through, but still holds up perfectly nearly three decades later. It is one of my favorite films of all time.
Marvel Comics had a long history of trying to get their popular superhero properties onto the big screen. Of course, it wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that they finally achieved some success, and it opened the door to the boom we’ve had since then with X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and so on. However, in the late 80s, they were truly going about it all the wrong way. Where DC had Warner Bros. backing their prospects (since they had an ownership of DC Comics), Marvel was going to low budget B movie production companies to adapt their heroes into feature films. Many were planned, but very few got a final product. None of them were successes, and for rather good reasons. The Punisher might seem like an unusual choice when they had such family friendly characters to choose from, but in the era of the action heroes in Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis, this does make sense. In the right hands with the right budget, it could have been a contender. But for those unaware of who the Punisher is, how about a brief synopsis?
Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was once a cop with a wife and children until that family was murdered in a mob hit. Faced with this horrific tragedy, and believe dead himself, he became the unrelenting, homicidal vigilante known as the Punisher. His mission is to punish the criminals and the corrupt without mercy or hesitation, but he remains the most wanted target of the police. Over a five year period, he has racked up a triple digit body count, and has weakened the city’s organized crime outfits. However, this has prompted Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé), one of their most powerful bosses, to come into town to take control, and bring them back to prominence. Unexpectedly, this move has gained the attention of the Yakuza, the most dangerous and powerful criminal organization in Asia. They decide to take brash actions to force the mafia’s allegiance to them. Many innocent lives are soon put into jeopardy from this, and the Punisher is coxed into taking action by his sole ally and street informant, Shake (Barry Otto). Meanwhile, Frank Castle’s former partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr), remains vigilant on finding the Punisher, and bringing an end to his blood soaked crusade against injustice.
I feel Lundgren makes for a fine Frank Castle. He’s not the best of the lot, but he easily holds the film strongly on his shoulders. He hones in nicely on the fractured soul of Frank, and adds some sense of self-reflection as a man seeking a reason for the injustice that has shattered his life. He’s not just a raging vigilante, he has an emotional core that is clouded with contempt. He’s a man with vulnerabilities, but chooses to bury them deep down beneath the hardened exterior. On the action side, Dolph handles that with ease, and does essentially all his own stunt work. He makes the Punisher a very practical threat as both a physically intimidating individual, and as a one man arsenal. Visually, after dying his naturally blonde hair jet black and throwing in some five o’clock shadow, he fits the role dead-on, aside from the absent white skull T-shirt or body armor. The motorcycle is a nice fit as well. It re-enforces the gruff loner aspect of the Punisher, and allows him to move quickly when action needs to be taken.
The supporting cast is decent enough. Everyone plays their roles with competent talent, but no one jumps out at an audience to make a memorable mark. Both allies and enemies of the Punisher make the story dynamics work, and the story itself moves along with a consistent pace and balance. Louis Gossett, Jr. probably has the most to work with as Frank’s former partner who happens to be tracking the Punisher. He has some emotional conflicts to deal with that Gossett does a fine job with, but the focus of the film’s emotional context really is with Frank Castle. So, the supporting cast doesn’t get nearly as much meat to sink their teeth into as Lundgren.
Jeroen Krabbé had previously played a Bond villain in the Timothy Dalton 007 film The Living Daylights, and this role as Franco is not much different. He plays it fairly well, but he never entirely sells Franco’s stature as a high ranking Mafioso. He’s too laid back. I would’ve preferred a stronger character or actor that could offer a more authoritative presence. I’ve seen some awesome crime bosses on film before that could likely leave Gianni Franco creaming his pants. There are a lot of enemies for the Punisher to combat in this film, but no one ever stands out as a major threat for him to conquer. No one ever appears to be more than he can handle. It’s only ever a numbers game that tends to ever overwhelm him.
In general, the action sequences are nicely conceived and executed. Numerous shootouts, chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat, and a few explosions make for a decently satisfying string of thrills. At times, Frank is given the image of a stealthy, covert soldier who can get into a location with ease, and attack with swift efficiency. That is another key for the character to pin down, and it was done well here in both concept and execution.
The story itself is sort of generic in terms that it doesn’t really adapt anything directly from the comics, and features no villains from the Punisher’s classic rogues gallery. Partially using the Yakuza was nice, but I’ve seen the Japanese criminal outfit used to better effect elsewhere. From what I’ve been exposed to of the Punisher, it seems that his stories work best when there’s a non-violent emotional motivation that propels him through the narrative. What some writers don’t seem to get is that the Punisher is not just some angry guy with a bad attitude and a nasty mean streak. There’s a deeper emotional turbulence to him stemming from the tragic, violent slaying of his family. He has a lot of deep down pain which he cannot overcome. Everything that he loved in life was violently robbed from him, and he can never get that back. Since society has failed to punish these people who victimize the innocent with due severity, the Punisher will do it for us. Frank Castle is indeed the very definition of a vigilante. He has no consideration or respect for the laws of society. He’s here to do what no one else can or will do, and our laws be damned. That’s not from a jaded or cynical sensibility, but an attitude from a man whose soul has been irreparably broken by gruesome tragedy. The best comic book adaptations are the ones that understand the core concept of the character. The ones that understand what makes them who they are, and what aspects have made them timeless, beloved icons of pop culture. They are built on ideals and themes that resonate with their audiences.
So, does this film hit that mark? Decently so. I’m sure it’s not the Punisher movie that hardcore fans were waiting for, but it hardly does anything to betray the core of the character. Various aspects of his history are changed like being a former cop instead of a Vietnam veteran, but he’s still entirely recognizable as Frank Castle. What we see is quite true to his more popular interpretations in comics.
Ultimately, what hampers this film is indeed the low budget. Sets that would otherwise be big and impressive are small, dark, and limited. Cinematography has nothing all that special going for it, especially the lighting. Every scene is lit about the same with full, flat lighting lending nothing to atmosphere or mood. This basically looks like a low rent television series pilot. And while this is vaguely meant to be New York, no effort is given to even purchasing stock footage, as was later done with Punisher: War Zone, to sell that idea. The film itself was shot in Australia. Surely, the Punisher is the one Marvel Comics character who benefits the most from the urban environment of Manhattan, New York. So, I feel getting the location aesthetics right is very pivotal. Yes, that is also a knock on the Thomas Jane Punisher film. Seriously, a black leather trench coat in Southern Florida? I don’t think so. Here, at least we do get gritty, grimy city streets at night to offer some contrast to the uninspired lighting throughout the rest of the feature. The screenplay seems like it works, but the budget limits how fleshed out the concepts, tone, action, and visuals could have been. Even then, a stronger villain would’ve elevated the quality of the movie like Frank Langella had done in another Dolph Lundgren movie, Masters of the Universe.
Simply said, it was a good try that stuck to the basics, but it didn’t have the financial muscle to make it everything that it could have been. Nor did it have a quality director behind it. This was the last film Mark Goldblatt ever directed, and only his second ever. It is a good watch, worthy of killing 90 minutes with, but it’s far from being a success. This was released the same year as Tim Burton’s Batman. That shows the huge contrast in handing a property to a major studio with a generous budget and a visionary director, and handing it to a low budget production company about to go bankrupt helmed by an editor-turned-second time director. Frank Castle would get another two runs at a fresh start on a film franchise, but neither would achieve what the studios needed them to. Hopefully, the future can have better fortunes for the Punisher.