For a year before this movie hit, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” had ruled the radio airwaves and the TV screens turned to MTV. A month or so before the movie came out, the soundtrack to “Purple Rain” was released and suddenly, there was a different set of songs dominating the radio. The first time I can remember hearing “When Doves Cry” was when I was browsing the aisles of the Alhambra Bookstore on Main Street, killing time and feeding another one of my habits, book buying. The stereo system at the bookstore was not particularly elaborate, after all they sold books not music, but it was loud enough that when the percussion on the song kicked in, everybody looked up and our bodies started unconsciously moving to the music. This would be the soundtrack for our lives in the Summer of 1984.
“Purple Rain” has been praised for it’s innovative shooting of concert footage and clever editing of montages, and it has been criticized for it’s amateurish acting and ham-fisted story line. I’m going to concur on both counts but forgive the later because the music and the former are so overwhelmingly positive. In the two years before “Purple Rain” there had been a number of music based movies that were not really performance based. The music was used as background or was simply the soundtrack to a dance sequence; Flashdance and Footloose are the two most obvious illustrations of this. This is a more direct musical where the stars and featured characters are performers in a story and the music advances the plot of the picture. Prince and his band are the main musical acts but they are not alone, at least three other musical sections contain performances from others, including the supposed rival in the story.
Apparently, Minneapolis had a thriving music scene in the early eighties; at least enough of a scene to produce Prince and to support a nightclub like the “First Avenue” which is featured in the film. The club scene shows mixed race audiences enjoying primarily black fronted musical acts. There was a lot of antipathy to dance based music by rock fans at the time. The disco era was dead but the dread of synthetic beats and amyl nitrate culture still lingered. Funk and Rock had a history going way back to the fifties, so it was not impossible for Prince to pull in a more rock based crowd if the mix were right and he hit the sweet spot with this set of songs. His dynamic on stage performances were unlike any smooth dance moonwalk and much more in the style of synchronized guitar moves typical of metal acts. Combined with a James Brown like sense of action and movement, Prince was able to dust off some of the “dance” act aura that had caused fans of the Rolling Stones to boo at the L.A. Coliseum in 1980. A broad audience would be needed to make the music popular and the movie a hit and this album broadened to base of music fans considerably.
Sneaking in under the cover of Prince’s rock band “The Revolution”, Morris Day and the Time are a near hip hop act that did represent the kind of music and act that might have gone down poorly just a couple of years before. Day is presented as a Lothario like clown; sweet talking the ladies that be calls bitches behind their backs. He is such an outlandish character however, that even with the misogynistic attitude and back stabbing efforts and comments that he makes to the lead and the leading lady, we can still enjoy him in the movie. Day and his band get two shots at the stage and they make each of them work to their competitive advantage. The conceit at the heart of the conflict is that the nightclub will not be able to keep more than three acts, and Day is maneuvering the ingenue into a performers spot with the goal of bumping his most serious rival, “The Kid” and the Revolution. The story gets a bit heavy at times because The Kid is the son of a failed local musical hero. His father and Mother have a tempestuous relationship and The Kid is being psychologically pushed into falling into the same patterns as the father, both in the personal and musical areas of his life. This is where the movie gets dicey.
The beautiful girl that both of the men are trying to romance, has musical ambitions herself. Apollonia is falling for The Kid, but his self centered musical focus becomes a barrier and Morris is not only willing but anxious to help her move into the music business. Against a background of family violence that he begins to emulate, The Kid romances and abuses Apollonia in much the same way that his Father loves and rejects his Mother. Yeah, the dramatic narrative is a little heavy and subtle it is not. The sex scene in his room at his parents house is however pretty hot without featuring direct nudity. The hands seem to be as effective a piece of genitalia as a tongue or penis would be. After the dirty trick he plays on her at a lake and the backhand he presents to her right after she has presented him with his dream guitar, you might wonder what it is that keeps her coming back to him. Maybe it is his right hand that she can’t resist or maybe it is his heart, buried under all the pain of his parents history that only she can see until he finds a way to let it out.
Lucky for the Kid and for Apollonia, a suicide attempt by Dad is enough to wake him up from his sleepwalking and open himself to the music of his female bandmates. Their song gives him the music to put his poetic hurt to in the competitive performance that climaxes the film. I personally prefer “Let’s Go Crazy” but the emotionalism of “Purple Rain” is the spirit that pushes the story past the finish line. The last twenty minutes of the film feature The Time in an audience friendly performance, enhanced by Day’s flashy brocade jacket which would fit in at any 80s club you happen to find. However, the taunt that he throws at the Kid as he passes the dressing room is mean and he knows almost immediately, despite the fact that his band was great and The Revolution has yet to play, that he has lost. He slumps against the wall and seems to know that he has awakened a sleeping tiger. The Kid and his band take the stage, tears take over the audience and the music lives forever.
The costumes, hairstyles, make-up and styles are all relics of the decade. While their time may have passed, they remain indelible in defining this period of music for everyone. The episode of Seinfeld when Jerry wears the “Puffy Shirt” must have raided the costume department for this movie because it looks exactly the same as the shirt Prince wears on stage.
For the full nostalgia trip I’ve included a little extra for you. This is the episode where Siskel and Ebert reviewed “Purple Rain”.