early beloved, we are gathered at this hackneyed intro to get through a review of Prince’s first starring vehicle, Purple Rain. Electric movie, Purple Rain, its story is ill conceived and its performances worse. But I’m here to tell you there’s something else: Its historical significance.Imagine a time (the early 1980s) and place (Minneapolis, Minn.) when there was a thriving music scene and a short guy who sang about sex became a star. So when you queue up at the Jean Cocteau to bathe in its neon glow: Go crazy.
Purple Rain opens as The Kid (Prince) leads his band The Revolution through a performance of “Let’s Go Crazy.” In that moment, with the song’s wonderful church-like organ and Prince’s reverb-drenched vocal, Purple Rain the movie seems as if it’s going to be an epic, wonderful celebration of the man and his music.
Instead, Purple Rain tries to be too much at once—family drama, silly comedy and performance film—and ends up being a silly hybrid of all three with no coherent story, direction or acting. But it was the 80s, and it is glorious.
One of Purple Rain’s problems is separating the real from the made-up. For all practical purposes, Purple Rain is fiction, though Prince did have an at-times strained relationship with his father. But even that’s hard to reconcile; John L. Nelson, Prince’s father, receives co-writing credit on several Prince songs, including “Computer Blue” from the Purple Rain soundtrack.
The story, more or less—really, a lot less—concerns The Kid and his rivalry with Morris Day (playing himself) from The Time, The Kid’s relationship with his family, and his relationship with Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), a new girl in town trying to make it in the local scene.
The Kid finds himself physically intervening with his father (Clarence Williams III) and mother (Olga Karlatos) during their violent outbursts, which usually revolve around the father assaulting the mother. The Kid also finds himself acting out violently with Apollonia when he learns she’s joined a trio Morris Day has put together to screw The Kid out of his spot at First Avenue in Minneapolis where they all play.
None of the storylines resolve. Director, co-screenwriter, and co-editor Albert Magnoli can’t decide what’s more important: the drama, the music, or lamely, the comedy. In a typical scene, Day’s friend and bandmate Jerome Benton drops one of Day’s jilted lovers into a dumpster. “Such nastiness,” Day says afterward, though he’s talking about the woman accosting him and not Benton’s assault. Day and Benton also do a version of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First” that comes off badly, and The Kid lets a naked Apollonia jump into a lake just so he can embarrass her.
Purple Rain is imperfect but it does document what is arguably the biggest moment in Prince’s career. When the The Kid/Prince and Revolution launch into “Purple Rain” during the band’s final show, it’s striking, and the awkward vibes of the movie’s previous 95 minutes disappear in the final 15.
Directed by Albert Magnoli
With Prince, Apollonia Kotero and Morris Day
Jean Cocteau Cinema