Published on June 7th, 2016 | by Craig Silliphant1
Purple Rain (The Movie)
After Prince’s passing, we sat down and watched the movie that helped launch his career to iconic status — the bizarre and hilarious Purple Rain.
After the death of Prince, society collectively sifted through our record collections to remember the man and his musical legacy. We talked (or wrote) about how his music touched our lives. When the Broadway Theatre quickly put together a screening of the 1984 film Purple Rain, I was out of town and unable to attend, but it made me realize I hadn’t seen the movie since I was a kid. I stumbled across a Blu-ray online for $8.00 and a week later I was on the couch, three beers deep, throwing on this piece of ‘80s pop culture. All I remembered about it from childhood was that it wasn’t very good, kind of boring, with some good musical performances.
What a funny thing memory is. Purple Rain is many things, but boring is not one of them. It’s actually quite batshit insane. I’m surprised the movie hasn’t been featured on an episode of the excellent podcast/love letter to bad movies, How Did This Get Made?.
In the film, Prince is a Minneapolis musician named The Kid. While he’s a talented songwriter fronting a band called The Revolution, he’s got problems. People don’t get his music and a rival band led by Morris Day is nipping at his heels. Even the owner of the club where both bands have their residence is planning to dump The Kid for a manufactured girl group featuring his girlfriend, Apollonia. On top of all that, his father is an abusive drunk who likes to do most of his talking with the back of his hand. Strangely, Prince is playing a weird version of himself; so are most of the other people in the movie, including his real life frenemy, Morris Day (Prince and his onscreen parents’ are pretty much the only ones not going by their real names).
The movie didn’t exactly set Hollywood on fire, and in fact, was almost not distributed because Warner Bros. found it rightly goofy and bizarre. But PR man Howard Bloom convinced them to release the property at the zero hour. It was all part of a plan, along with the soundtrack, to make Prince a global superstar, which obviously doesn’t seem silly in hindsight. The movie didn’t have to be great (or even good, apparently) to plant Prince’s persona in the public consciousness.
Purple Rain is hilarious, pretty much from the beginning. One of the opening scenes sets the tone, as Prince rides through a dirty Minneapolis hood on his purple Bat-cycle, wearing his signature purple Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, trying to be Brando tough, but coming off as some kind of Lynchian Pee Wee Herman. He looks like he fell out of a different movie, if not a different dimension.
A few scenes later, he’s dirt biking off road with the Prince-cycle, which is clearly a city bike, across dusty trails and over grassy hills, awkwardly standing up in the saddle, jiggling like Jell-o. He takes Apollonia to a creek, where she strips down, wanting him, needing him to make sweet, sweet love to her. But he pretty much leaves her there, for no apparent reason, other than to be a dick. In fact, he’s a total creep to her throughout the film — even lashing out like Bing Crosby to belt her across her pretty face several times. It’s so unexpected that you actually feel the sting of the smack for a split second — I reacted with a hand to my own face and a loud, “Ow, fuck!” I’m guessing the film was trying to make some sort of statement about violence begetting violence, you know, like, when doves cry and all that, but it’s just bizarre, scary, and often unintentionally hilarious. It comes across as slapstick (no pun intended).
There are no likeable characters in the movie, except maybe Apollonia, and the only person who’s not chomping the scenery is Morris Day (though even he has a bonzo Abbott and Costello ‘who’s on first’ routine with his valet/Smithers). Prince comes off as just unsympathetic as all the antagonists, with nary a scene to get you to take his side. Even the family abuse scenes are so ham-fisted and weird that you don’t really sympathize with him. He’s mean to his band, his woman, and pretty much anyone who crosses his path. According to Prince-lore, the shitty way he treats his band in the movie is the same way he treated them in real life.
The Kid seems afraid of girls at the creek, which prompted me to wonder if the character was supposed to be gay or androgynous. But fast-forward a couple of scenes and to quote Jesse Ventura in Predator, The Kid becomes a “sexual tyrannosaurus.” He’s all up in there, writhing and throbbing and quite literally fingering Apollonia on a bed (and I’m sorry if it’s gross, the way I said that, but that’s less graphic than the way it plays out on screen, by far).
“Holy shit, he’s going to pork her, Dad,” I shouted to my wife (I was a few beers deeper at this point). Again, what is meant to be sexy is unintentionally hilarious. As a side note, why is he a somewhat successful, sexy, soulful adult musician that lives with his parents and can’t take ladies back to his house? Just because he’s called The Kid, am I supposed to believe that he’s a teenager? (Prince was 26 at the time).
The music scenes are sublime, which is obviously what Broom was counting on to launch Prince into the stratosphere. Some of the music was apparently even recorded live (the lip synching you do see is much better than some of the off kilter ADR in the actual dialogue). Prince wrote all the songs in the movie, including Morris Day and the Time’s songs and even the piano song that The Kid’s dad plays. The film won an Oscar for Best Original Score (though the song Sex Shooter was rightly nominated for a Razzie) and of course, the soundtrack was one of the most seminal albums of the 80s.
All that said, the music is also what makes the movie make even less sense. At the end, he plays his bandmates’ song to win over the crowd and show that he’s still got it, or that he’s not too far out there, or whatever everyone’s problem was with him was. Of course, this is total nonsense, because that song is Purple Rain, which sounds the same as the rest of the great Prince songs he’s been playing the whole movie. Though, it’s not like he could be playing shit music the whole movie until the finale; plot be damned if this was to be a showcase for Prince himself.
Like I said at the start, I was sorely misremembering Purple Rain, even if it makes sense that I wouldn’t have noticed how bizarre and funny it was in grade five or six. Seeing it again as an adult, I can’t claim that it’s a good movie by any stretch of the imagination. However, it’s pretty fun. It’s a wacko nostalgic mindfuck of epic proportions, unapologetically awful but amusing.
But Purple Rain is also more than that in moments, especially in hindsight after Prince’s passing. If you can look at it more as a snapshot of a time and place and worry less about the fact that it makes no sense, it becomes something greater. Between the music and some of the darker Nicolas Winding Refn-type moments, like neon lights illuminating the dark corners of alleys, Purple Rain becomes as cool as fuck in places. Think Drive or Michael Mann’s Thief. It’s a pop culture communiqué that drove the broad strokes of Prince’s pouting, sexual persona into the brains of the masses. It’s a weird, funny, beautiful, movie. A curiosity. A Pee Wee Herman rock star cartoon reality, but darker, more purple.