The Strange Magic of Purple Rain

Prince died last week and I, like many others I would imagine, watched Purple Rain. A little personal context if you’ll permit me. I always respected but never particularly pursued the man’s music (shamefully I count myself among those now moved to make up for this past neglect). His loss didn’t feel as strangely significant to me as David Bowie’s, but only because of my comparative lack of connection to the work. Regardless, Prince’s cultural footprint is undeniable and is not limited to the music he made.

While I play a guilty game of catch-up with those key albums, it’s notable that among them are more soundtracks than most artists of similar iconic stature (itself a short list) feature in their discographies. The field narrows further when you consider how connected Prince was to the films he provided music for. His blueprint is on the celluloid itself. And usually his very image.

The crowning and most complete example of this is 1984’s Purple Rain, directed by Albert Magnoli. Part musical, part concert film, part romantic drama, Purple Rain belongs in a narrow subset of films in which pop artists appear as versions of themselves, recasting their lives as entertainment, refracting their celebrity through the camera for their voyeuristic fans, truth mingling with fiction. Another level of performance. Yet this movie exists at a considerable remove from the jolly camp of, say, The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night or the irksome frivolity of Spice World. It’s nearer to Mick Jagger’s persona-collapse vehicle Performance. Unlike most of it’s obvious, more immediate contemporaries, Purple Rain has managed to endure; beloved by fans and respected by critics, despite it’s often notable deficiencies.

And it’s not a perfect film, not by a long shot. But what it lacks in polish or subtlety, it more than makes up for in terms of style and pure undiluted evocation. Purple Rain is so absolutely of its time that it’s impossible to imagine a film being made now that could feel anything like it. The sounds. The fashions. The attitudes. It stands as one of the cornerstones of 80’s pop cinema; as connected to its era as the films of John Hughes or Joe Dante.

Prince stars as The Kid; an up-and-coming funk-rock musician looking to get his shot at the big time thanks to club owner Jerome (Jerome Benton). While acts like Morris Day And The Time score big with the crowds at First Avenue, The Kid is drawing less and less water. In part he is distracted by his burgeoning romance with fellow young hopeful Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), but in turn this relationship brings to the foreground a more personal struggle, as The Kid threatens to follow his father’s footsteps into a life marred by failure and domestic violence.

It’s a jarring thing to see; a phenomenal pop icon portraying a character steeped in such unsavoury behaviour. Even as Beyoncé seemingly lays out her marriage in her just-released video album Lemonade, it feels tame and guarded when compared to the ugliness of Prince’s The Kid in Purple Rain. When he hits Apollonia, it’s genuinely shocking. The film goes to great pains to show his own distress at his actions lest we lose our ability to empathise with him completely, but still, full credit to Prince for committing to a performance which casts him and his celebrity in such a glaringly unfavourable light. Here he seems only too ready to appear sullen, argumentative, spoiled, even spiteful.

And it’s when considering these dimensions that one realises what a capable actor Prince was, especially when set beside the cinematic efforts of fellow icon Madonna, for instance, whose own film legacy is downright miserable. In fact, most of the main players in Purple Rain hold their own within the context of the film’s overall style. Morris Day seems to be having the time of his life, his performance cluttered with quotable lines of dialogue and palpable flare.

The music and stage performances are absolutely stunning. Enjoyable and evocative in equal measure. The whole film feels as though it exists through a haze of dry ice and sequins, yet it feels far from glamorous. Underneath it’s shimmering neon artifice, there’s a palpable sense of realism to the dirty clubs, messy dressing rooms and scuzzy dance studios. While not exactly gritty, Purple Rain feels oddly legitimate. It’s a city film; smoky, unforgiving, but beautiful for it, even as it runs through a variety of soap opera routines..

Yet even this feels oddly correct.  Like the Invitation To Love segments of Twin PeaksPurple Rain feels oddly aware of itself; the whole movie’s a performance, a fiction the audience is well aware of. This ought to rub awkwardly against the aforementioned sensibilities… but it doesn’t.

The Kid’s battle with personal demons is painted in rather broad strokes, but that’s the point. This is still a film designed for mass consumption, one that assumes the audience is aware that it is, at the end of the day, another product. Another record from Prince And The Revolution. You either buy into it or you don’t.

In fact Purple Rain works like a pop song, playing its cards openly for the audience. There are few coded ambiguities here. The story is presented to be consumed, understood and even related to by its viewers. It’s really quite an empathetic piece of work. And like all great pop songs, it’s a joy to revisit, in spite of (or even enhanced by) it’s layered darkness. You might not always pay close attention to the lyrics, but that’s not to say they’re not important.

Above all else it’s the feeling of the thing. In this Purple Rain is almost as rich as, say, Blade Runner. I was tempted to call it a glorious example of style over substance, but really, it has both. Those rough edges, occasional duff notes and brazen oddities (Prince the ventriloquist?) only earmark it for cult posterity. There’s really nothing like it. That’s bittersweet now as, like it’s star, we won’t quite ever see it’s kind again.


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