Guilty Pleasures: Purple Rain

purple rain bike

George Orwell was wrong. 1984 wasn’t the year of Big Brother, it was the year of the little brother from Minneapolis, Prince. After the Talented One had been toiling in the trenches he hit the big time with Purple Rain. This ridiculous, pompous semi-biopic of the same name, despite lurching perilously close to bad, is a stunning showcase for his talent, and this month’s Guilty Pleasure.

Prince plays “The Kid”, front man for super tight outfit The Revolution, his real band at the time, playing one of the acts at the First Avenue Club in Minneapolis, Here they fight for the top spot against rival band The Time, fronted by Morris Day and sidekick Jerome Benton. The Time were actually Prince proteges who sometimes performed material written by him. Into this mix comes Appolonia (Apollonia Kotero) to stir up all kinds of jealousies.

On top of all this The Kid has to contend with his mother and musician father’s troubled marriage at home. It’s a crazy mix of topsy-turvy relationships, bad acting and cliches galore. But once you start watching, you can’t drag your eyes away from the screen. For instance, during the When Doves Cry montage, Prince rides his motorcycle through a concrete tunnel: on one side graffiti bearing the female symbol, the other side male, “Love” and “God” : The Kid has to pass through it all to come put the other side, a better artist and human being!

When Prince isn’t tricking Appolonia into a dare to strip off and jump in the lake as a fake initiation into the band, he throws a hissy fit on stage when he sees her flirt with Morris Day’s Svengali figure. Quite why he tries to make her cry by singing about Little Nikki “masturbating with a magazine” is beyond me. I was too dumbstruck by the image of the pompadoured midget dry-humping an enormous speaker stack. See, no-one understands The kid. He knows he’s going to make it, why can’t anyone else see it? He is dismissive of band mates Wendy and Lisa’s demo tape, constantly being interrupted when listening to the first few chords, not having the patience because he’s a STAR, dammit!

When The Kid gets frustrated, he paces. A lot. It’s especially comical seeing Prince (and hearing him) in his high heels zipping back and forth across his dressing room or his basement bedroom, emoting for all he’s worth. Or else zooming about on his Batgirl motorcycle, hiding behind giant mirrored shades (masks feature heavily throughout the film, a shorthand for the emotional distance The kid keeps from being hurt or rejected by fools who don’t GET HIM!). If Prince can’t act, at least Morris Day has a comic presence, his jive walking, preening fool a welcome distraction.

The main distraction, of course, is the music, and electric stage performances. The real secret to the success of Purple Rain is timing. 1984 was the peak for MTV style, music videos were really taking off and performers were sought by the station for their style as much as their sound. Prince had everything, he just needed a platform. Director Albert Magnoli recalled meeting Prince for the first time in a hotel lobby. Prince didn’t know who he was:

Because he didn’t know who I was, he didn’t see me. He saw Chick and Steve at the end of the hall and walked to them, which allowed me to do a right-to-left pan with Prince, unencumbered by him knowing I was looking at him. As a result, I ended up filling [in] the whole story based on him walking across the lobby. Because what I saw was extreme vulnerability, in spite of all the bluster and the costume and the music. This was a vulnerable young man. I saw all the heart and soul. I saw all the emotional stuff. I saw the tragedy of his upbringing. I just saw stuff and felt stuff that filled in the three-act story.”

When properly introduced, Magnoli flat out told him the existing script sucked, and, in a tense pitch-black drive through nightime farmland, Magnoli outlined his new pitch. As John Kenneth Muir’s book, Purple Rain: Music On Film states, Even though the story Magnoli had recounted involved the lead character (Prince himself, hereafter called “The Kid”) being at odds with his parents, his bandmates, and even his girlfriend, Prince never once flinched from a warts-and-all, three-dimensional presentation.

The thing about Prince is that he wasn’t concerned about his image,” Magnoli reveals. “He was concerned about whether the film would communicate. Would the music communicate?

“I said to him, ‘If you’re willing to let me have your father in the movie give you a kick in the face on a certain page and get thrown across the room — if you’re willing to take that hit — we can make a great movie.’

 “And he said, ‘I’m willing to take that hit.’ So that was it, metaphorically, realistically, and literally. Because he does get smacked by his old man in the movie.

“And then I jokingly said to him, ‘There isn’t a person on the planet who wouldn’t want to hit a rock star in the face,’” Magnoli continues. “And he laughed and said he understood that. We both understood that the image of these people as entitled and selfish was a target. We understood that.

Think of the movie as one long extended pop promo, a rock musical as valid as Tommy, and ignore storytelling shortcomings.

If the film is in danger of falling apart from some terrible ham-fisted  acting, there is always a blistering musical performance or montage seemingly every ten minutes, from Prince and his rivals, culminating in The kid’s acceptance of and retooling of Wendy and Lisa’s song.

[Click here to see the electric very first performance of Purple Rain to a silent, rapt crowd at First Avenue in 1983]

What then follows is an electric rendition of Purple Rain to a rapt crowd in First Avenue, with the club owners silent tacit acceptance that The Kid “has it”. But wait! The Kid thinks he’s blown it! He stomps up and down backstage, tearing the place apart, until he hears the crowd chant his name. He rushes back to finish the set with, appropriately, Baby I’m A Star, before the corniest over the shoulder freeze frame until Zoolander. Purple Steel, anyone?

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Originally posted 2013-03-11 11:05:50. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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