Purple Rain is a glorious failure. It barely works as a movie but somehow still pulls it off. More than most films I have watched during the pandemic, it is a film not made to be seen by yourself at home. It is meant to be seen in the dark with a group of strangers united by their love of The Purple One.
Albert Magnoli can be happy that Purple Rain all but defies classification. It has music in it but can not be called a musical. Though there is romance, the film is never romantic in any way shape or form.
The script by Magnoli and William Blinn uses a plot so old you can feel the movie creaking and groaning from overuse. It’s the type of story where the characters either don’t have names but instead go by things like The Kid (Prince) or Father (Clarence Williams III). Or if they do have names they tend to be just the actor’s name playing the character such as Apollonia Kotero as Apollonia or Morris Day playing, who else, Morris Day.
Essentially The Kid and his Minneapolis based band The Revolution, play at the First Avenue nightclub run by Billy (Billy Sparks). Along with Morris and Dez and the Modernaires, they spend their nights rocking and rolling. Though The Kid seems to be using his time on stage to exorcise his personal demons stemming from his abusive home life.
Enter Apollonia, a woman who is new in town. Down on her luck, she is both hungry and desperate for a chance to prove herself. After that Purple Rain begins to lose the thread and becomes a series of musical performances and montages.
Yet, that’s not the film’s main problem. The thing that almost sinks Purple Rain is not the awful acting or threadbare ancient plot. It’s that Purple Rain is grossly misogynistic. It was misogynistic when it came out in 1984 and is toxic with it by today’s standards.
At one point one of Morris’s ex-girlfriend confronts him on the street. Morris has his sidekick Jerome (Jerome Benton) tosses her into the dumpster. Afterward, the two laugh and walk away. The Kid is abusive towards Apollonia, gaslighting her, beating her, and in general treating her like dirt. Part of this is by designm as Magnoli and Blinn are trying to show the Kid is emulating his Father’s own abuse toward his Mother (Olga Karlatos).
There’s a subplot involving the band’s guitarist and keyboardist, Lisa (Lisa Coleman) and Wendy (Wendy Melvoin), trying to get the Kid to listen to some songs they wrote. His own sexism is so potent that he outright refuses because what could they as women possibly have to say.
Though he eventually sees the error of his ways and performs their song “Computer Blue.” But we are never shown the moment or understand why he decided to stop being an arrogant child and just give them a chance. He just does, which is fine because the song is good, but it’s another in a long line of moments where time is wasted on a drama that ultimately goes nowhere.
Morris, ever the scheming Snidely Whiplash type, seizes on Billy’s complaint of the Kid and his offstage drama. Seeing Apollonia he offers her a chance, along with a waitress at the club, Jill (Jill Jones), and forms the all-girl band Apollonia 6. All of that is fine. But the sexism is baked into the bones of the men behind the camera.
Apollonia 6 sing in what is essentially lingerie, while the men in the front row offer them money to take it off. Both Morris and The Kid seem more interested in bedding Apollonia than in anything she has to say, want, or dream about. Her very presence seems to be to justify the film’s R-rating between stripping her clothes off and a brief sex scene.
Even the abuse between Father and Mother is shockingly violent. It’s a little unnerving that we get a whole scene of Father explaining himself to The Kid but nothing from Mother. She even ends the movie by Father’s side nursing him back to health after shooting him.
Clarence Willimas III, an actor whose very presence tends to make me smile, nails Father’s monologue. Haunted, angry, and confused, he tries to explain himself to his son but fails. Like The Kid, he can only really express himself through his music and Williams pours his all into the brief moment and ends up giving the moment it’s due despite of the film’s ineptitude.
Magnoli and Blinn’s script fails at every turn at what it wants to do. But what keeps Purple Rain from being The Room is two things. It is deeply earnest in a way that is almost hard to watch. Rarely do we see films nowadays that so nakedly wear its heart on its sleeve. The other saving grace is a no brainer; it’s the music.
Prince is not an actor. To be perfectly blunt he is bad, worse than bad, he’s awful. But put him on stage and he’s electric. There has never been anything before, or since, quite like Prince, and Purple Rain reminds us of this at every turn.
Watching him gyrate on stage is to remember how unabashed he was both as a performer and in his own sexuality. In one moment Wendy is on her knees miming fellatio to Prince’s guitar and it’s a jolting reminder of the sheer chaotic sexual being that was His Royal Badness. There’s a heedless exuberance in watching someone climb onto the speakers and hump the air while acting out an orgasm.
Purple Rain is at it’s best and most effusive when Prince and The Revolution are just rocking out. Based on his album of the same name, the songs have little to no connection with the story. Poor Magnoli and Blinn twist themselves and these “characters” into all sorts of awkward poses to try and justify moments and scenes that couldn’t possibly matter to anyone.
But there’s no need to. Merely seeing Morris Day and Times strut their stuff singing “Jungle Love” or “The Bird” is worth the ticket price alone. Morris Day is the “villain,” the rival of The Kid, and is clearly having a ball hamming it up. Watching Morris and his sidekick Jerome scheme and bicker is one of the highlights of the non-musical portions of Purple Rain. The duo has an infectious giddiness about them.
As much Apollonia spends the majority of Purple Rain being treated like crap, she does the most with the least. On paper, her role in the story is either an object to be won or the tempting she-devil that could cripple or detour The Kid’s burgeoning career. On-screen though, she is charismatic and striking. It’s impossible to take your eyes off of her. The moment where the Kid tricks her into jumping naked into a lake and then threatens to take off without her is clumsily played like something out of a screwball rom-com. But Apollina’s winsome smirk and her deft touch with the clunky dialogue somehow-almost-makes it works.
It’s staggering and more than a little heartbreaking to wonder what Purple Rain would have been if her role had been something more than a mere object to be possessed. Granted that could be said for every other person in the film as well. But with Apollonia, there’s a spark of real talent there that is buried and brushed aside in favor of The Kid’s story.
Purple Rain to some degree is almost manic in tone and mood. It can never decide on what it wants to be for longer than a scene before shifting gears so roughly and jarringly that we’re left a little disoriented. It is a mess.
Despite all of this, despite the tonal inconsistency, despite the cringe-worthy acting, despite the script that’s more anecdote than a story-despite all of that—it works. Mostly.
Magnoli, who also edited Purple Rain, and Donald E. Thorin’s camera, conspire to make a movie that while it doesn’t one hundred percent work is impossible to forget. Impossible to forget not because of Prince’s glistening torso as he bucks wildly to “Darling Nikki” or because of his weirdly oversized purple motorcycle. But because Magnoli has edited Purple Rain within an inch of its life and Thorin shoots the streets of Minneapolis as if it were Gotham City.
Purple Rain looks better, moves better, and sounds better than other, better, movies. Odd that the albatross around the film’s neck, Prince himself, is also it’s saving grace. With his ruffled shirts, flowing hair, and electric stage presence, Prince was already larger than life. In Magnoli and Thorin’s hands, he becomes something more, something mythical.
The montages as The Kid walks around the fields of Minneapolis thinking about his music, Apollonia, and his parents, are breathtaking in their skill and emotional effectiveness. One scene has Magnoli cutting back and forth between The Kid and Apollonia while he belts out “The Beautiful Ones.” Apollonia is on a date with Morris, and the camera slowly zooms in on her as The Kid mournfully croons as if he’s speaking directly to her. They create a strange elixir of wounded suffering and devastating cruelty from thin air.
It wasn’t there in the script. Magnoli and Thorin created it using technique, the actors, and the music. It’s incredible how jazzed I felt by the time the credits rolled. Purple Rain is not a good movie but it is an unforgettable experience.
But it’s not one to have sitting at home alone watching it on your laptop. It’s meant to be seen with friends and strangers in a dark room. Someplace where you can cheer, jeer, shout, and dance along. I get the feeling the way to see Purple Rain is to see with its fans; people who know the lyrics to the album not because they memorized them, but because they have ingrained the words into the sinews of their being.
In its own weird way, Purple Rain distills art to its very core. It demands you experience it fully by interacting with it, dancing to it, singing along with it, to feel and know it in your bones. Problematic and repulsive at times it nevertheless dares us to give in to it the music and to the art itself.
If you’re very lucky you might just be able to do that. If not, you will find yourself sitting and staring coldly at the room and wondering what the heck is wrong with everyone. Either way, you won’t soon forget Purple Rain, how could you?
Image courtesy of Warner Bros.