Registering the Registry 2019: Purple Rain (1984)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Sticking in 1984 for the week, we find the Purple One and collaborators willing his own semi-autobiographical movie to serve as compliment for his latest studio album. It’s Purple Rain, and it sure is A Motion Picture. What are the thoughts? Scroll down ’n’ see!
(Originally published December 27th, 2020)
What you need to understand is, I missed the Prince bandwagon while he was alive, owing to his staunch refusal to allow his music on any digital platform. The eight year period from high school’s start to university’s messy end marked frequent dives into at least the shallow end of many popular musicians from yesteryear, as I’m sure it does for everyone, and with that period coinciding with a rise in popularity for YouTube and numerous music streaming platforms, a majority of the artists I looked into were readily available. One of the small benefits of being a teenager in the late 2000s/early 2010s. Prince, however, remained at a distance — I was too far away from any metro area to have easy access to physical media, never even asked for an allowance, and didn’t have any interest in purchasing much when I could just pop it on the computer whenever I felt like it thanks to others’ efforts. The guy who did everything in his power to ensure you HAD to buy his stuff on physical and treated the internet like a devil who’d steal his soul if a second of his music dripped onto iTunes or Spotify was thus entirely outside my sphere of interest. If you can’t so much as sample Prince before committing yourself to a financial transaction, and if none of the Tucson stations gave his material any airtime compared to dozens of other 80s acts, why bother? It was only with his 2016 death I had any real exposure to the music — radio stations started playing compilations in his honor, his estate eased up and let his music out into the world, streaming in decent quality became possible outside Tidal — and while I liked what I heard, by then I was past my early 20s and so past a period of frequent and eager musical discovery. He’s good, I hear all the magic others find in his songs and can groove along to them plenty easy, but any and all chance of my counting him as an indisputable capitalized article Rock God is well and truly past.
You need to understand this because, in my estimation, Purple Rain is cinema as extension of personality, and seemingly works best if you’re either already onboard the Prince ride, or have no prior knowledge of the man’s music or image whatsoever. This isn’t like The Last Waltz or Coal Miner’s Daughter, which arrived years after their musician subjects hit the big time and spent ages talking with the press, eager to impress a copy of their personality on the public, spilling details and stories in every interview, every single, every album. Nor is it similar to those films’ use of autobiographical material to bring you closer to the artists, get you thinking how all the changes inherent to fame and fortune have left down-to-earth, recognizable people who simply happen to be immensely talented musicians. Purple Rain, album and movie alike, arrived roughly a year and a half after Prince hit the proper bigtime with his fifth album, 1999, and began crafting the famous unknowable, impossibly distant yet infinitely desirable sex machine gifted in voice and looks and guitar. It is effectively the result of an ascendant young artist deciding he’d like to have his own movie, pressuring his managers to make it happen, and dedicating the entire endeavor to advancing his stage personality. Purposefully left un-promoted by the star, more collection of live performances shot and edited with cinematic flair than self-contained story, Purple Rain effectively IS Prince, or at least the person Prince wanted the world to see in 1984. As the crown jewel in his media empire, the wellspring for monster hits like “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” and the title track, the source of the short, skinny motherfucker dressed in Byronic violets and whites atop a custom purple motorbike with a knowing look in his eye, the film is selling Prince as basic concept and lifestyle as something indubitably, objectively desirable. You’re onboard for everything it has on offer, or you’re not.
To lay all cards on the table and be fair as I can manage, what it’s selling is immensely attractive and immaculately crafted. Prince’s stand-in character, the Kid, takes to the stage for a performance four times throughout the film, and every single instance finds him in top form, presenting you with this man descended from on-high to cut through the noise and bullshit, show you a good time while also baring his heart to the world. It opens on a energetically cut rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy,” introducing you to the artist through female lead Apollonia’s eyes in an ethereal spoken-word opening against shiny silhouette before launching an extended rejection of all possible obstacles and bad times, all Prince in perfect tune with The Revolution and making eyecontact with his audience no matter where his eyes actually wander. The embodiment of “He looked at me, he looked at ME!” Give the first act some time to pass, let the Kid reveal some of his damage and less desirable personality traits to Apollonia and the audience, get her tempted to throw in with his musical rival Morris, and we find Prince onstage performing “The Beautiful Ones,” the album/film’s love song of such strained, overwhelming power it draws out Prince’s perfectly high-pitched screams. In spite of some unlikable moments and emotional distance warning us away from this man, it only takes five minutes and one song to slam everything back in place, only a challenging declaration of love and dedication from someone so tender and yet so terribly pained to bring the illusion back to full strength. Even into the second act, when the Kid has made numerous mistakes and threatened his stable gig, his band’s solidarity, his relationship with Apollonia, when he is explicitly tied to his abusive, self-centered father by bringing the man’s piano melody into “Computer Blue” as a guitar solo and renders “Darling Nikki” a mocking, lustful performance piece as much about negging on Apollonia before an entire audience as it is its libido-laden lyrical content, it’s hard to deny there’s something about him. He’s a stonewall of emotions in his daily life, impotent to the extreme, abusive towards friends and lovers alike… and yet you see him pour it all out in concert, and there’s something dangerous to the Kid, something alluring to the edge on Prince, something effective and intoxicating regardless how much the dialogue insists nobody gets his music.
I’d argue director Albert Magnoli makes something from Prince’s limitations as an actor here. The guy couldn’t emote to the camera for jack-squat, so all his confrontations with the band, his rival, or the club manager involve him sitting there with the same slightly strained look on his face, all attempts to act against Clarence Williams III see the older man bringing believable self-pitying rage to the screen while Prince communicates an ineffectual, weak outrage in response, and the two room-destroying sequences come across as someone uncertain how to move in the space they occupy. Prince and the Kid alike read as dysfunctional basket cases, hardly capable of genuine emotion or intimate connection, trying their hardest yet failing to put any of it on their faces, and it is beyond fitting for the image on display. He and they are hiding in the music, refusing to confront the pains of daily living by putting it all out there when they perform, so you find this contrast between the artist who effortlessly makes you believe his hype and legend with a cocked eyebrow and wail of the guitar, and the barely independent twerp who somehow occupies the same skin. There’s no better demonstration of this than when the Kid’s inability to get over himself conspires with a few bad turns to completely tear him down, leave him with nothing save inspiration from others, and leads to him standing before the crowd to play “Purple Rain.” It is meant as the moment when all distance collapses, between the Kid and his audience, and between you and Prince, and everyone just clicks and GETS it. A power ballad about regret and sympathy and desire for something divine yet wholly mundane, delivered without guff, without bravado, without anything between you and this man’s very soul, embodying everything he is on the inside yet cannot be without a guitar in his hands and an audience to serenade. All told, it’s enough to make one a believer in magic, in music, in Prince, and though I’m about to launch into the reasons why the effect doesn’t hold for me, for eight solid minutes the spell works and I see the light. Don’t matter what else he is; he’s Prince, and Prince means something beyond the beyond, something personal and understanding like no other.
Of course, I’ve only described the parts when Prince is performing on-stage with a few brief mentions of his acting elsewhere, and though these are substantial portions of the runtime, they total around… wanna say roughly 25 minutes of the 110-minute film, edging on 30 max? And not even all his performances, for “Purple Rain” is shortly followed by a celebratory back-to-back go on “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m A Star,” which seem a good entry-point into why Purple Rain didn’t mint a new fan in me. For all the good it wrings from contrasting Prince the Repressed Person with Prince the Impossible Rock Star, the main takeaway seems to be the one moment of reflection in the third act is ALL the character and musician both need to reject all possible problems with Person Prince and make Rock Star Prince the living, physical impression on earth. A bombastic ten-minute finale reveling in how bothering to listen to his bandmates for once not only produces far and away the best song in the movie, but symbolically saves his father from suicide, repairs their relationship, makes Apollonia his girlfriend again, reunites The Revolution, and makes the Kid every inch the untouchable megastar he always was and deserved to become is maybe a little much. Kicking tunes still, but we made our point and could’ve left on a bittersweet note of all this talent and success being no replacement for the ability to truly raise himself beyond what he was. Instead, it embraces the impossible image from the introduction, embraces it as natural and right for this child gifted by high power, and makes no attempt to reflect on the conflict we examined.
A lack of self-reflection in terms of casting, music, and story further tarnishes the picture in my eyes. It seems supremely scummy to position yourself as the lead of a film about a super-talented musician surrounded by people who just don’t get how deserving and special you are, or else constantly and eagerly plot your downfall by turning your allies against them, and then cast all the supporting roles with the musicians you call your coworkers, even brought into the music industry in the first place in some cases. Performances from The Time, Dez Dickerson and The Modernaires, and Apollonia 6 all gain an uncomfortable vibe for how the story positions them as the crowd-pleasing, superficial acts who’re on the rise beyond The Revolution despite not possessing any of the Kid’s insight or magnetism or heartfelt pain, and so serve as contrast against Prince’s performances… which is NOT a good look when he wrote and arranged all the music they perform. Sort’ve a, “You people are out to get me, but you’re nothing; you’re not even the groups I give the GOOD music!” air to it. The Apollonia 6 song, “Sex Shooter,” feels particularly gross, as it occurs at the point a less-musically driven story would present the protagonist’s former girlfriend as a degraded stripper or prostitute to emphasize how their separation has made her somehow lesser for stooping to sex work. Couple it with how easily Prince replaced Vanity of Vanity 6 with Apollonia of the newly formed and totally distinct group Apollonia 6, and the treatment towards a character whose only crime was not wanting to be with the Kid 100% of the time as a woman of tainted virtue until she rushes back into his arm is incredibly unappealing. Oh, and cheating as someone speaking from decades into the future and taking advantage of knowledge nobody could’ve known on the film’s release, but the subplot about the Kid butting heads with Lisa and Wendy over not wanting to use their stupid music for being inferior to his own compositions until he finally listens and makes “Purple Rain” from their work rings incredibly hollow knowing Prince butted heads with Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin over not wanting to use their stupid music for being inferior to his own compositions until they got fed up and left The Revolution, breaking the band apart two years after the movie.
It all rings of a performer driven by insecurity and mistrust, someone putting on a front of having lived through all this and become a better person for learning from their mistakes, yet evidently never rose beyond the mistakes of their own story. Once I noticed, the in-between elements of the movie started a slow collapse in my mind, from the celebrated “Cleanse yourself in Lake Minnetonka” bit seeming more outright abusive than roguishly charming when the Kid makes to abandon Apollonia half-naked by a freezing lake, to the scene of Morris Day and The Time performing “The Bird” looking like Prince mocking a project he started for not having a signature song brilliant as his own masterpiece, to every scene with Lisa and Wendy confronting the Kid over their grievances feeling a petty act of mouthing with his hand and going “blah blah blah,” particularly when one of the bandmates makes a quip about the pair having their periods reversed. The most damning thing, though? “When Doves Cry.” Strange, STRANGE statement, I know, considering every other song in the film was written before production and selected as appropriate to its contents, while “When Doves Cry” was written by request from Magnoli to produce a composition summing up the picture’s themes during post-production. By all rights, it SHOULD compliment Purple Rain better than anything here — and in the abstract, it does. “When Doves Cry” remains a wonderful piece’ve music, driven by the synths and drum machine and guitar, with those layered vocals speaking about innocence lost and sins of the father and evoking beautiful images touched by lust that neither lover can achieve again after an implied rocky patch. I love blaring it with headphones in so the vibrating electronic warble at the start slams straight into the left eardrum. You can get me gushing about its merits as possibly the best song on the entire album if you poke me just right, I mean to cast no dark shadows upon its accomplishment as a song or cultural artifact.
As used in Purple Rain, though? It comes right after the Kid has lashed out at Apollonia for daring to join another group, right after Wendy and Lisa almost leave The Revolution because of his uptight jerkery, right after Billy the manager tells him nobody digs the music anymore. Played over a montage of the Kid riding his bike around Minneapolis as he imagines past good times with Apollonia , chaste and horny alike, the specificity of the situation absolutely destroys any magic in the song. Regardless inherited sins and tendencies, the editing places these happenings in direct sequence one to the other, and what we see of the Kid in the previous ten minutes do not paint a picture that matches well to the song at all. All of a sudden, those universally applicable lyrics bemoaning the loss of purity and begging for dignity come from someone we KNOW has caused every last damned problem in his life by his own hand, who was never an untainted babe who knew wonders beyond wonders in another’s arms and lost them all due to mutual incompatibility. This song about love and loss becomes the self-pitying woe-is-me anthem for a little bastard who needs to get over himself and grow up, which does dirty by the musical accomplishment of the piece AND Magnoli’s efforts to make Prince’s limited acting the picture of an emotionally stunted man held back by a destructive upbringing and constant isolation. The illusion of Prince is almost entirely shattered by this short montage, and I’d say the film and album’s best-known and beloved song, the one born and raised to embody everything the story and Prince himself had to say at this point in his life wrecks any chance of my calling Purple Rain a good film by way of making the Kid personality too intolerable, if the on-stage parts weren’t so condemnably GOOD.
(Side note: For years I’ve heard the lyric as, “Maybe I’m just like my mother/She’s never satisfied.” Going by the captioning and subsequently looking up the official lyrics sheet, it’s actually, “Maybe YOU’RE just like my mother/She’s never satisfied,” which makes me like the song and scene alike a little less, since it’s taking the piece ever so slightly out of personal introspection and putting some blame on another — in-story-context innocent — party.)
Makes a tricky proposition, figuring what to do with Purple Rain. In the one, without convincing me of its might and majesty on the whole, everything involving Prince performing his tunes live and projecting the exact image he meant to project is compelling as all hell, easily enough to mint a new believer or reinforce an existing one’s views. In the other, knowledge about its context, an excess of self-indulgence in celebrating the rock star personality without challenging it on any meaningful front, and personal discomfort with certain elements on my part makes it read too much a project born of unthinking ego, however much compromise and collaboration and personalization I know took place between William Blinn’s original drafts and Magnoli’s substantial rewrites. I maintain it deserves a place in the National Film Registry, as I intend to do for all films we consider here, because it demonstrates the capacity of film to elevate an idea in an image above all else and strike the culture with such force as to leave a clearly-outlined imprint decades down the line. What to do with it as a cultural object and what to do with it as a film are two different questions, however, and while I consider it just over the Good line for the music and presentation, what it’s actually saying doesn’t sit right in my head. If it followed the direction I found in the first act, kept with Apollonia’s perspective and considered the journey of a wannabe star falling in and out with a megastar only interested in his undeniable image and sex appeal, twisting and turning to stand on her feet while pulled between multiple forces who use and abuse her while seeking her own voice, we might not have this issue. Probably best to just say the album’s the better experience between the two: it’s in the National Recording Registry itself, its music touches on all the themes of obsession and doubt and inherited pains without implicitly bashing on other artists or making the celebratory stuff feel indulgent (coming before the title track helps there) or rendering “When Doves Cry” soundtrack to a whiny, atonal mess, AND it gives you the ending to “Darling Nikki,” with Prince breaking out the high-pitched screams again.
Alas and alack, the man is four years dead, but we still have his twin monuments to himself. The sonic monument of pure Minneapolis sound way closer to transcendence than its cinematic twin, and unsurprisingly, it’s the one built on artistic grounds he actually specialized in.
Once more, we are at an end for the week. Despite running the column, my opinions on Prince and Purple Rain are not unassailable nor objectively correct, so lemme know your takes down in the comments. While you’re talking, stay excited for next week’s column — we’re sticking in 1984, for the 80s Oscar winner to end all 80s Oscar winners. It’s Miloš Forman’s Amadeus, starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce! Hardly need mention where you can rent or buy it (Amazon, YouTube, Vudu, you know the drill), but it IS worth mentioning the vast majority of commercially available copies are of the three-hour director’s cut from 2002. As the only version of the theatrical cut I can reasonably obtain and play is a reportedly poor-quality DVD from the early 2000s that splits the film across two disc sides, the retrospective will cover the director’s cut instead, with some notes as to the differences, courtesy movie-censorship.com. See y’all then