Purple Rain (1984) review – RIP Prince


Ladies and gentlemen…the Revolution’

When we’re talking about the cinematic legacy of the late, truly great Prince, Purple Rain was the first, and will always be the best. It’s a thrilling synthesis of music and style, but get this – you will only truly love it if you’re a Prince fan. If you’re not, you might get a kick out of it as an unintentional comedy, or if you just like the whole 1980s aesthetic, which this has in abundance. Seriously, this is one of the most 1980s movies ever made. It’s a kind of musical, except that some of the songs are non-diegetic, and those that aren’t are sung from the stage at a gig, so we’re not talking about random performance outbursts. Actually, there are quite a few random performance outbursts, but they’re nothing to do with singing, and usually involve Prince throwing a tantrum.

It’s difficult to recommend Purple Rain to non-Prince acolytes – I mean, take the script, which while dramatically full of potential, is clumsily executed. The acting is very variable. Its sexual politics are dodgy to say the least. The plot is exceptionally thin. But the music. Oh God, the music. Some of the best that has ever been created, and performed. In the end, everything else is secondary. Purple Rain is not a great film, but it is a tremendous experience. Again though, only if you’re a Prince fan. You might have gathered that I am, and Purple Rain the album is one of the greatest blockbuster LPs ever, a monster-seller where every single song is immense. I’d go as far to say that of all the big, BIG, mega-selling albums that make up our cultural world, Purple Rain is the best. The absolute best.

The opening ten or so minutes of the film are so exciting it’s giddying – I remember when films in the 80s were pejoratively described as being ‘very MTV’, and you can’t get more MTV than this movie, or this opening sequence in particular. After all, given that ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ makes up for the entirety of this opening, it essentially is a music video. But it also has a big, cinematic approach – the photography, lighting, lensing, the whole shebang, all first-rate.

Fade in and we’re amongst the front row of a gig, and the band are starting. This band is Prince and the Revolution, except Prince is named The Kid here. Everyone else – Wendy Melvoin on guitar, Lisa Coleman and Dr. Fink on keyboards, Bobby Z on drums and Brown Mark on bass – are themselves. And they can play. They kick in with ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ – opening sermon and all – and the thrill and adrenaline of what it must have been like to have been at a Prince gig is up there on the big screen. This is the album and film that made Prince a phenomenon, and you can see why – he’s utterly electric. He’s a star. He has it all. I can’t take my eyes off him, but I try to, because Wendy will always be one of the coolest guitarists ever, and Brown Mark, who wisely gets away with not having to utter a single line of dialogue in the entire movie, is rocking that jacket and bass of his.

Interspersed with the live stuff, and this is where the music video feel really comes into it, is the start of the film’s ‘plot’ – new woman in town Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) runs out on her pricey cab fare and checks into a dive of a motel situated opposite where Prince is playing. She wants to make it big in the music scene. We also jump back in time to earlier in the night where the band are gearing up to play! We get quick-fire editing of the very trendy gig audience! The arrival of The Kid on his purple motorcycle! The arrival of none-more-narcissistic Morris Day, lead singer of the Revolution’s arch-rivals The Time! Almost all of this is done without any dialogue, and like a music video’s ‘plot’, it can pretty much be understood by anyone. I say totally visual – of course, there’s the music, and ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ is one of those gauntlet-thrown-down album openers that pretty much defies you not to move, not to surrender to it, not to fall down to your knees and praise its rollercoaster magnificence. The version of the song playing here is the full-length one, complete with jazzy breakdown two thirds in – the shorter, more familiar one will remain the ultimate cut for me because of its brevity, but the long mix works better in the film. Whatever version of the song you’re hearing, it’ll always end in that stupendous spiral of guitars and the hammering of drums and ‘TAKE ME AWAY!!!’ and suddenly it’s all over. Wow. What an opener. Of course, the film will reach similar peaks – eight, to be precise. On an unrelated note, there are nine songs on the album.

Of course, no one was expecting Purple Rain to have a strong story – mainly because pop star films rarely do, and on that front, this doesn’t subvert that expectation. At the same time however, there is a lot going on – The Kid’s band are hot stuff, but they’re occasionally a bit too weird for the masses, unlike The Time with their straight-up, crowd-pleasing funk. Apollonia wants to make it big, but she’s torn between love for The Kid and stardom with Morris. If The Kid wasn’t such a jealous twat, there’s no reason she couldn’t have both, but there you go. Wendy and Lisa want their music to be included in the band’s repertoire, but The Kid is too controlling to allow outside influences to creep into his sound. Their demo tape by the way is an embryonic version of ‘Purple Rain’, so it’s obvious The Kid must be a stubborn bastard, because who would ignore that song? Also, The Kid’s home life is disturbed to say the least – his dreadful father regularly beats his mother over shit like not keeping the house clean. The Kid’s mum just wants to have fun, but the dad only wants her to be obedient. Suddenly I’m thinking of that awful line in The Isley Brothers’ otherwise tremendous ‘That Lady’ where Ron sings about how he would give his woman anything she wanted if only she would ‘just do what I say’. Fucking hell. Speaking of The Kid’s mum, she’s played by Olga Karlatos, who we all love and remember from Zombie Flesh Eaters where she got her eye stabbed by a protruding chunk of wood from a door.

The Kid is a bit of a dickhead, frankly. He treats his band like shit, treats his girlfriend worse. Purple Rain has been accused of sexism, it’s difficult to refute that charge – yeah, Morris is the bad guy here, but he’s pretty likable (not to mention entirely unthreatening) for an antagonist, so having him casually refer to ‘bitches’ and ‘asses wiggling’, not to mention having his lackey throw an angry woman into a dumpster leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. Still, that’s nothing compared to what our Kid does – okay, the shocking bit when he hits Apollonia makes sense narratively because he’s his father’s son and all that and he’s a fucking idiot, but I’m talking about the notorious sequence earlier which involves the Kid and Apollonia on their first date, where he says he won’t help her in her career unless she ‘purifies herself in Lake Minnetonka’ – given that he says this to her directly by a lake, you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was the lake in question. I mean, she shouldn’t have been stupid enough to actually jump in it, but given that she strips off before humiliating herself means this scene feels exploitative.  The film appears to side with her embarrassment, but then after all that, she kisses him on the cheek after she gets back on his bike! What the fuck?! I’m sensing a misguided ‘treat them mean, keep them keen’ attitude here, and Prince was lucky Apps didn’t kill him right there and then after the way he behaved.

Prince’s shitty approach does seem to work though – later on, long after she’s walked out on him after he hit her, and directly after her first gig, she and Morris walk out to his car, both drunk as skunks, and yeah, Morris is clearly wanting to get it on, but he’s not being a threat, and Apps can definitely take care of herself – so why does she agree to get on Prince’s bike when he shows up out of nowhere (almost killing Morris) and he demands she comes with him? Then we get another bad date as Prince almost winds up smacking her again, and they part on very bad terms, but by the end of the film, he sings ‘Purple Rain’ and she’s all over him again. I mean, I’d like to think that if someone can write a song as beautiful as ‘Purple Rain’ they could get away with anything, but I don’t really mean that, you know?

Elsewhere, there’s the bit where Wendy and Lisa (in the film they’re referred to as Lisa and Wendy, which I’ll never get used to) confront The Kid about him not wanting to listen to their demo tape, after which he acts like a total dick to both of them. They storm out and Dr. Fink (not a real doctor) comes out with some dreadful shite about God reversing Wendy’s periods so that she’s only nice for one weekend every month. At least Bobby Z appears to be mortified by that ‘joke’.

Obviously, the older Purple Rain gets, the easier it is to dismiss such sexist crap and appreciate the film’s merits, of which there is much. But first, let’s concentrate on the acting, which is not as bad as you’d think – Prince is actually pretty good. He’s got the look – he’s earnest, he’s impish, and he’s got the presence. And of course, on stage, his performance is about as brilliant as you’re gonna get. However, there is some unintentionally funny stuff – we shouldn’t be laughing at that bit when The Kid storms into his house looking for his dad (who’s just hit his wife again), but it takes nerves of steel not to burst out laughing when Prince screams ‘WHERE ARE YOU?! ANSWER ME, MOTHERFUCKER!’ – yeah, calling your dad a motherfucker is weird, no two ways about it. But to top it all, straight after that Prince does a complete 360 degree spin that yeah, you could argue was done so that he could get a quick scan of the room to see where his dad was, but ultimately looks like he’s forgetting that this part of the film is not a music video.

Actually, Prince swearing, whilst not a unique thing at this stage in his career, still stands out in this film – there’s a later bit where he tells Billy the manager to ‘FUCK OFF!’ after doing a stroppy march back and forth in his dressing room which makes him look like a petulant eight year old. As for Kotero, she’s alright, but apparently the chemistry between her and Prince was not great, hence their sex scenes being trimmed for lack of fire. The band are fine! Who doesn’t love Wendy and Lisa? It’s just a few supporting turns and one-scene performers that come off as a bit wooden.

As for the intentional comedy, well we get one of those spins on the whole ‘Who’s on first?’ routines between Morris and fellow Time (and future Revolution) member Jerome Benton that were doing the rounds back in the 1940s. It might drive you crazy if you haven’t got the patience for it, but I think it works pretty well here. In fact, Morris’ flamboyant turn is one of the film’s successes. His date with Apollonia is a comic highlight, the latter being distinctly amused and unimpressed with his run of lines (‘your lips would make a lollipop too happy’, etc) – the poor sod doesn’t stand a chance when Prince comes on directly afterwards and sings ‘The Beautiful Ones’, does he?

Oh yeah, the songs – holy SHIT, they’re amazing. Even when they’re not performed live in the film, as is the case with ‘Take Me With U’ and ‘When Doves Cry’, they electrify the screen and give super-weight to the visuals. ‘Take Me With U’ accompanies the section where Prince and Apps ride towards the lake that isn’t Lake Minnetonka, and the song is such a pop joy, one of the best duets of the eighties. Great use of strings, a hell of an intro and one of those astonishingly wonderful middle-eights that just makes everything all right in the world. In fact, the two share more chemistry on record than they do in the film! ‘When Doves Cry’ accompanies a flashback montage, and it’s here that you wonder just how much of this film is autobiographical, or just how much it is fiction.

It’s the performance stuff though that really hits home – ‘The Beautiful Ones’, which is one of the most alien, stunning and gorgeous love songs EVER, is sewn into the film’s narrative by pitching Morris as the other man during the ‘do you want him or do you want me?’ finale. Now given that the love triangle between The Kid, Apollonia and Morris is pretty bloody uninteresting, it’s a miracle that this song works as well as it does in the film, but when the song’s on, I’m not thinking about any of that. It’s all about Prince on stage, and yes, it’s all about the visual impact of Apollonia crying, and it’s all about that music. It’s essentially a music video, and it all makes sense right there and then – during the song I feel for her, I feel for him and it’s all because of the song. What a song. And then it’s over and we’re back on Earth. And back to the not very interesting love triangle.

The ‘Computer Blue’/’Darling Nikki’ sequence is interesting because this is the part in the film where the Revolution is seen to be going completely off the boil – no one’s really digging the music (though this is not emphasised too much), Morris thinks it’s shit, the manager thinks its worse. The Kid is up his own arse, delving too much into his own ‘personal shit’ and it’s all going wrong. Obviously, in the real world, these songs are amazing – ‘Computer Blue’ was probably everyone’s least favourite song on the album to begin with because it goes off into a jam (although by Prince standards a very, very brief one – check the unedited 14 minute version for longer results), but come on, we all love it. The water’s warm, the grooves are funky and yes, in the film, it’s utterly electric. However, it’s definitely less of a proper ‘song’ than the other stuff on the album, so I can see why it might alienate the punters. Pearls before swine, I say. Still, this song cowers before the might of ‘Darling Nikki’, which is the one that got Tipper Gore all flustered and ‘Parental Advisory Stickers’ were born henceforth. In the film this song is delivered with what comes across as self-exorcism. It freaks everyone out, and yes, it’s directed at Apollonia, so more ‘personal shit’. ‘Darling Nikki’ is one of the all-time best Prince songs, an apocalyptic, sexy-as-fuck, overwhelming monster of a song that works amazingly well in the film, though the ‘I know the Lord is coming’ played-backwards coda is missing, I suppose because it doesn’t fit into the narrative.

The final hat trick of ‘Purple Rain’, ‘I Would Die 4 U’ and ‘Baby, I’m a Star’ is as stunning a close to the film as the beginning was. Of course, on record ‘Purple Rain’ was the ending, but here it’s the first stage of The Kid’s comeback. ‘Purple Rain’ for many other artists would be their albatross, their overwhelming success, but Prince was too damned hot back then to linger on it, the perverse about-turn of his Around the World in a Day album leaving it for dust the following year. But what a song it is. Despite being rarely compiled as such, it is probably the ultimate power ballad – huge, epic, spacious, anthemic and host to one of the most awesome guitar solos ever, plus one hell of a spine-tingling, beautiful orchestral coda. If any song was going to herald an on-stage comeback, it’s this one. The crowd love it. Even that club manager, who’s been giving nothing but shit to the Kid, clearly loves it. And unlike the crowd, we and the band especially love it because this is The Kid finally opening up and letting Wendy and Lisa into his sound, and as we all know, the Prince/Wendy/Lisa era of music making is one of the most wonderful things ever. The bit when he leans over to give Wendy a peck on the cheek is a glorious little moment. After the song finishes, he flees the stage, as anyone who just delivered the Greatest Song Ever might very well do, but the audience reaction is so positive that he’s got to go back. Even Morris loves it, even though this means The Time is most likely going to be shunted off the venue’s one available slot anytime soon, as that night was essentially a competition between the two bands. And this is where we get the double-punch of ‘I Would Die 4 U’ and ‘Baby, I’m a Star’, two utterly triumphant, wonderful tunes.

There’s other music too – notably the use of the instrumental version of B-side ‘God’ during The Kid and Apollonia’s love scene – having a piece called ‘God’ over a bit where Prince is touching his girl down there where it counts is one of many examples of Prince mixing the pleasures of the flesh and the sacredness of his spirituality. It’s a lovely piece too, seductive and sexy and it works beautifully in the film. You’ve also got a few Time tunes, of which ‘Jungle Love’ and ‘The Bird’ are awesome, the erstwhile Vanity 6 (now Apollonia 6) performing ‘Sex Shooter’ and former Revolution member Dez Dickerson (he’s the one who sings the first line in ‘1999’) with ‘Modernaire’. However, the Purple Rain album, despite being a film soundtrack, limits its songs to just the Prince ones (excluding the instrumental ‘God’), which despite seeming a little unfair, does set in stone its reputation as an all killer, no filler blockbuster. Look at the very fun but too big soundtrack to Graffiti Bridge to see what happens when everything gets thrown into the mix.

Overall the film has dated in a way that makes it quite spectacular to experience – it’s full of colour, melodrama, hilarity and those songs. Plus Prince himself. Seeing him on stage in this film is to see an absolute master – see how he inhabits his own songs, see how he moves, he sings, he screams, he dances… it’s utterly breathtaking. For all its flaws, the film was a worthy addition to the legend that Prince was in the eighties. Musically, he would continue to remain untouchable for some time, but in regards to his next few films, the legend would be tarnished somewhat. But we’ll get into that another time…


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