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.