Back in 1981, I had never heard of Prince until I had started listening to dance music on the radio that year. The two songs I do remember first hearing from him left me captivated and in awe just by the difference in sound he had from the rest of the bands and singers from that time. I don’t know which I’d heard first, but it was “Do Me, Baby” and “Controversy” that had my ears pricking and listening with furtive attention. The choice to sing in falsetto seemed so cool and the funk in the title track of that fourth album was addictive, it really changed my life from there on out. At that time, I had become a Prince fan for life.
Being so young and sheltered made it impossible to acquire that album at that time, so I had to wait another year with the release of “1999” before I officially owned a Prince album. During those years of the early 80s, cassettes were all the rage and that’s the media I had chosen to listen to his fifth album, and I wore out that tape with the constant playing, rewinding, playing, rewinding…I soon had to buy the vinyl record to appreciate the album all over again.
And it was a yearly event, with the exception of 1983, that you could count on Prince releasing an album. 1983, of course, was the year that Prince obviously prepared for his acting debut in the motion picture, Purple Rain, which is why he hadn’t released an album that year.
It’s strange, especially after hearing the confirmation of his death a few days ago, but during the year of 1983, a rumor began swirling about his death and I believed it to be true, just for the fact that he hadn’t released his yearly album at that time. Of course, seeing as there was no such thing as the internet to check whether or not it was true, my friends and I had to wait until the announcement of his upcoming album, “Purple Rain,” to breathe a sigh of relief.
And if I had called myself a Prince fan before the 1984 album and movie was released, I became a Prince extremist afterwards. The two albums I’d owned were not enough, I went back and bought his first album—“For You,” his second—“Prince,” third—“Dirty Mind,” and the one that created my fanaticism for him and his music—“Controversy.” It went that way for years, buying his album right when it was released, listening to them day-in and day-out, blasting his music in my bedroom and in my car’s stereo, searching for his extended versions and B-sides that he’d become known for…anything and everything I could get my hands on regarding Prince is how I’d lived my life. I’d bought books on his life, reading any magazine that featured him on the cover, learning in awe about how he taught himself to master more than 20 instruments and how he played all the instruments on his first few albums…Prince became more and more amazing to me with every fact I’d read about him.
With all that said, this review may be a bit predisposed, but I’ll try to keep a neutral head and look at it in an impartial state of mind. With that said…I present my view of…Purple Rain.
A young musician, The Kid (Prince), tormented by an abusive situation at home, must contend with a rival singer, a burgeoning romance, and his own dissatisfied band, as his star begins to rise.
I’ll never forget, seeing this flick for the first time, how the Warner Bros. logo appeared with the low, guttural synthesizer humming as a voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen…The Revolution!” and that hum blended into the more melodic synthesizer of the intro to “Let’s Go Crazy” with Prince preaching, “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life…” Never attending a Prince concert at that time, I felt a charge, an electric energy gathering in the crowd that pulsed through me as the screen lit up with Prince’s silhouette in the middle of the screen…I’ve never felt that way since, no matter what movie I’ve seen. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that I’d never seen Prince in concert before this movie was released. He did have a big tour that went through the Bay Area to support his “1999” album that I was dying to see—but my parents wouldn’t hear of me going. Even after this movie was released, in 1985, the “Purple Rain Tour” travelled through again, breaking records of selling out six shows at the Cow Palace in four hours…I couldn’t go. With each of those concerts, it was difficult to attend school the following days and see dozens of my classmates wearing Prince concert shirts, wishing I could’ve attended the shows. So seeing Purple Rain for the first time? It was like my first Prince concert…and it was wild!
Sorry for the digression.
Now, I can’t pretend that this movie is perfect or that it should’ve been a contender for Best Picture, nor can I say that any of the acting is above average. But this movie defines the generation I’d grown up in and what my life had been about back then—the music of Prince! However, to critique this film fairly, I need to put on my blinders, look at the movie from a reviewer’s perspective, so let’s do this…but I’ll still interject some Prince Fanboy points.
Before this movie was released, a lot of us Prince Fans knew of his beginnings, especially his time performing at the First Avenue Club in Minneapolis. So it was really fun to see that the actual club was used in the movie—both the interior and exterior. As a teenager, I’d wished that I could visit that club and see all the larger-than-life musicians that frequented the venue. Seeing where Prince had his start and getting a view into his life as the promising pop star he was becoming was fantastic to see as an adolescent. All in all, I think it was a great choice to film most of the movie in Minnesota, which probably made Prince feel a hell of a lot more comfortable with the whole process of making this groundbreaking film.
The movie does feature two established actors—Olga Karlatos and Clarence Williams III—who play Prince’s parents in the film. Both keep the film rooted when it comes to the drama, especially the miserable scenes between the two as they display the dysfunctional parents to the up-and-coming musician. Some of the scenes are hard to watch as it displays some harsh domestic violence, but it lends to Prince’s performance as the son who witnesses the abuse his father inflicts upon his mother. To this day, those scenes move me, especially the interaction of all three, and it stands out above all else in the movie.
Apollonia Kotero was also an accomplished actress, but back then—and even now—I feel her acting was a bit wooden in this flick. Perhaps it was the direction she was given, maybe it’s what Prince wanted from her…I don’t know. However, there did seem to be quite a chemistry between them throughout this film and it was felt from the moment their characters had met in the story. And it was Apollonia who finally softens Prince up to show us a different side of him that we’d never seen before. The playful, yet hilarious, interaction between them at the lake definitely sets the mood in bringing together their relationship.
The music! What can I say that hasn’t already been said about the soundtrack to this film? Each song is incredible and memorable, each fitting into the specific scenes and capturing the emotions of the characters during the course of the film. Who can forget Prince’s “Darling Nikki” as he basically dishes out their dirty laundry in front of everybody, eliciting Apollonia to break down in tears and run out of the club? And at the climax of the film, after everything that The Kid goes through—losing his love, his father attempting suicide, his musical career hanging by a thread—when he sings the hauntingly melodic “Purple Rain”…I choked up then and I choke up now when watching. Even the music from the other bands were entertaining—especially from Morris Day and The Time—and had you dancing in your seat.
Speaking of Morris Day…he had quite a lot of weight on his shoulders. In Purple Rain, he played the villain and comic relief…when the focus wasn’t on Prince’s character, all eyes were on Morris. Just like Prince, this was Morris Day’s acting debut and he wasn’t all that bad. Keeping his “cool” persona complete, he added the over-the-top character that the film needed. With Jerome Benton, Morris’s right-hand man at his side to pick out dust from his jacket or to hold up his mirror, the two were a very funny comedic duo. The film’s memorable scene where they make a plan for Morris to approach Apollonia at the club had the crowd in stitches when I’d first watched this and I remember cracking up as well. Recalling the movie reviews back then, one critic compared that scene to Abbott & Costello’s famous “Who’s on First” skit and I kind of agree. As Nicolas Cage would say, that’s high praise.
The film also gives most of Prince’s band supple screen time—some very little, some exceedingly so. I’d been, and still am, surprised how fine a job Wendy Melvoin does in her scene where she confronts The Kid on whether or not he’d consider playing music her and keyboardist, Lisa Coleman, had composed. The quip by keyboardist, Matt Fink (Dr. Fink), still makes me smile, although it’s very sexist. Even the drummer, Bobby Z., gets a line. It’s just poor Brown Mark, the bassist, who only gets to give subtle looks here and there. Besides Prince’s band, a lot of his entourage and former band mate—not to mention Prince’s then bodyguard, Chick Huntsberry—get quite a bit of time in the film as well.
Looking back, now as an adult and seeing this movie objectively, I must say that Warner Bros. really took a chance with this film. We all know Prince became a megastar because of Purple Rain, but he wasn’t that well-known beforehand and that was quite a gamble—one that paid off—for the studio to take. Then again, he was making quite a bit of money for them in their music division of the company…but they definitely saw something special in Prince and their gamble paid off multifold.
Also, nowadays, I do see some problems with the story, especially the relationship between The Kid and Apollonia. The violence portrayed, with a man hitting a woman, is very hard to watch in this day and age. What’s worse is that there’s no direct consequence to The Kid’s actions as Apollonia apparently forgives him at the end of the movie, having her dance in the crowd and smiling as The Kid prevails. Who knows? Maybe the Kid went into anger management after the conclusion of “Baby, I’m a Star” or Apollonia told him she couldn’t forgive him, but that he put on a great show…we really don’t know. But if this movie was released today, it’d be criticized for its message it sends out about domestic violence. I realize it was showing that The Kid was following in his father’s footsteps, becoming the kind of man he despised his father to be, and finally realizing it at the end…but for today’s standards, there should’ve been a more substantial conclusion to their complex relationship.
Nevertheless, Purple Rain is monumental. The film is an experience from start to finish and I, for one, am so thankful I had been able to see this—and see it multiple times—when it was first released in 1984. It was a great decade to be a teenager, a fun time to watch movies, and a wonderful era to enjoy Prince’s catalogue of music. Even though the film is over 30 years old and Prince has gone through an array of styles—both in hair and clothing—he will forever be remembered for his look in 1984. Those long wavy locks, frilly clothing full of buttons, lace gloves and flair, and made-up face with pencil-thin mustache, will be reminisced until the end of time.
Yes, we’re all mourning the death of this legendary icon, but we should all be thankful that we had nearly 38 years of his music and will probably have more for years to come—Prince’s locked-away music enduring and hopefully released to the masses soon.
But my final “bit” on Purple Rain?
Prince fan or not, this movie is solid, although 80s-esque through-and-through, you’ll have a good time with the music, you’ll be moved by the drama, you’ll laugh at the humor…overall, you’re going to go through an array of emotions before the final credits roll. If you’re a Prince fan like me, the ending of the film—with Prince turning to look straight into the camera as the film freezes—will have an emotional impact. I’m not going to lie…when the movie ran recently on VH1, a lump in my throat formed and my eyes teared up.
The world has lost an amazing man, a masterful musician, an artist, a singer who broke down musical barriers…we will truly never have another one like Prince…ever.
|Prince Rogers Nelson|
June 7, 1958 – April 21, 2016