Purple Rain is all about seduction, how it spots you in the crowd, seeks you out and grabs you until you can’t resist despite some understandable reservations. Look past the appealing surface and you will see uncomfortable darkness. But it’s not so easy to let go.
It’s how The Kid attracts the immediate attention of Apollonia, even if he doesn’t always treat her with respect. It’s how the womanizing Morris Day lures her with a career push even though she isn’t the slightest bit attracted to him. It’s how he convinces the owner of the First Avenue club to consider dropping The Kid’s back-up band, The Revolution, as a regular act in favour of a girl group he’s putting together.
It’s how The Kid’s abusive father keeps his terrified mother from fleeing. It’s why The Kid can’t help but imitate his misogynistic behaviour. It’s how The Kid keeps The Revolution together despite grumblings about his tardiness, cold demeanour and not being open to band members’ song ideas. And it’s how he captivates club audiences with his considerable charisma and untouchable musicianship, an indisputable fact that even Morris Day & The Time, Dez Dickerson and Apollonia 6 can’t deny.
It seems a bit of a stretch that Prince as The Kid would ever consider Day, as funny and as talented as he is in his own right, serious competition (are Jungle Love and The Bird, catchy dance members notwithstanding, even remotely in the same league as Let’s Go Crazy and When Doves Cry?) or that his audience would ever decrease but cinematic convention demands such a plot. (His unwarranted jealousy of Day getting too close to Apollonia, however, is easily convincing. He really doesn’t have anything to worry about.) To the film’s credit, though, when The Kid’s club gig is on the line in the final act, it leads to the deeply moving title song where for once the audience’s tears feel genuine. God knows it got to me, too.
Apollonia is a 19-year-old beauty who flees New Orleans, successfully avoids paying for a $37.75 cab ride, rents a room at the Huntington Hotel and manages to sneak her way into First Avenue where she becomes immediately transfixed by The Kid. (She did not deserve a Razzie for her underappreciated performance. Her facial reactions are spot-on.) It helps that he’s in the middle of playing perhaps the greatest Prince song of all time, Let’s Go Crazy, which is a lot longer here than on the soundtrack.
After his set, when they lay eyes on each other for the first time on the floor of the club, the lust is palpable. But so is The Kid’s eccentric playfulness. As Morris Day & The Time take the stage, the odd one is right behind her one minute and then gone in an instant when she turns around. He eventually convinces the naive goddess to ride with him on the back of his motorcycle where he drives her to a lake and in a very humourous moment, tricks her into stripping down to her panties in order to jump into the freezing cold water. She’s mad but only briefly. You got me, you sexy motherfucker. Her shy smile gives her away.
His home life is much more turbulent. The Kid has a terrible role model in his black father (a genuinely scary Clarence Williams III), a former musician and songwriter, who gets into terribly violent screaming matches with his petrified white mother (a mostly muted Olga Karlatos). (The Kid gets whacked for attempting to intervene during an early fight.) After one such incident, she threatens to leave. But where would she go? The Kid’s dad, often upset about her supposed inability to keep a clean house (what’s stopping him from doing it himself?), knows it’s a bluff.
The Kid knows this shouldn’t be happening but when Apollonia announces she’s joining Morris Day’s girl group, in a rage he smacks her with an open hand. (She had just pawned a piece of jewelry so she could buy him a guitar he likes.) Unlike his father, he’s instantly remorseful but a damaging pattern has been established. A later confrontation sees him almost doing it again but he somehow manages to not follow through. Like many abusive men, The Kid’s father attempts suicide after another unwarranted attack on his wife. This leads to a violent temper tantrum, a surprise discovery, an exposed lie, and decidedly mixed feelings.
All of this built-up tension makes the performance of Purple Rain, the epic ballad he dedicates to his father, all that more powerful as The Kid, clearly realizing he fucked up, leaves it all out on the stage, but thinking afterwards, incredibly, that it just wasn’t enough either for the audience or Apollonia herself. The film cuts between Prince’s gutwrenching vocals (you can feel his guilt in every note) and intense close-ups of the mesmerized clubgoers, some with tears in their eyes. (I was emotional, too.)
My favourite reactions come from the club owner Billy (the effective Billy Sparks), particularly the second one where he nods in amazement. Even he is impressed by what he’s seeing and hearing. Having pushed The Kid to deliver the goods, he now knows he can’t fire him. He’s too valuable to the club.
When The Kid returns for a more upbeat and triumphant two-song encore, even Morris Day is having a good time. (Before even taking the stage, there’s a great moment where he cruelly (but hilariously) mocks The Kid’s family situation and then when no one is around, looks very worried about what’s to come. It’s the only time he drops his phony playboy act, his metaphorical mask temporarily removed.)
Purple Rain is far from a perfect movie. The camera is too tight on the famous Jungle Love dance. (The leg movements are cut off.) Even though there are no bad Prince songs (I even liked Sex Shooter, another undeserving Razzie “winner”) few are in the class of Let’s Go Crazy, When Doves Cry or the title cut. We could be spared the scene where Day’s assistant Jerome disposes of an angry flame on his behalf (not all of The Time’s frontman’s antics are funny, in fact, he can be quite sexist). The Kid’s mom is purely a victim and not enough of a fully fleshed character. And you wonder if there should’ve been a darker ending. Abusers are too easily forgiven in this movie.
That said, there’s no denying the deftness of this enterprise, the way the highly entertaining concert performances neatly tie in to the building off-stage drama, a point Gene Siskel first made back in 1984.
Prince was a unique talent in his time, a singer, a songwriter, a producer, a versatile musician who could shred as well as Jimi Hendrix and emote as powerfully as Smokey Robinson. He could even out-James Brown James Brown. (His on-stage athleticism had few peers like Michael Jackson.) But he was also complex as evidenced by his thinly veiled cinematic alter-ego. Note one weird scene where he pretends to be a puppet to dismiss Revolution bandmate Wendy’s early demo which he eventually turns into Purple Rain and another when he tries to kiss her cheek as a belated thank you during the live performance of that song. Her awkward reaction is unmistakable.
Distant, indifferent and sometimes flat-out jerky, like Saturday Night Fever, Purple Rain’s protagonist isn’t a hero or a villain but a complicated human being struggling to stay sane and ruthlessly ambitious in the midst of so many bad influences. Like the dance floor where Tony Manero shined in his famous white polyester suit, the First Avenue concert stage is The Kid’s most trusted shelter from his emotional firestorms.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, April 10, 2017
CORRECTIONS: The club is First Avenue, not 7th as I erroneously noted a number of times. Also, it was Wendy, not Lisa, who Prince dismisses over a demo that forms the musical basis for the title song. The text has been corrected. My apologies for the mistakes.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
CORRECTION: Apollonia didn’t find a cheap apartment, she rented a room at the Huntington Hotel. The text has been corrected. I regret the error.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, April 11, 2017