Saturday Editor’s Pick: Purple Rain (1984)

by on July 29, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Sat Jul 30 at 4:45, Sat Aug 2 at 9:00, and Tue Aug 5 at 7:00 at Anthology [Program & Tix]


Anthology returns with the second part of its 1970s and 80s musicals series, continuing through August 9.  Programmer Leah Churner asks “What happened to the Hollywood musical?” over at Moving Image Source.


In the words of Rob Nelson for City Pages:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Purple Rain–the Citizen Kane of Minnesota movies and a worldwide showcase for the ascendance of its then-26-year-old star into rock ‘n’ roll eternity. Ladies and gentlemen…the revolution.



Nelson continues:

When this lurid, riveting, high-pitched tale of “a brilliant but struggling young musician” (per the original press kit) began shooting at First Avenue and 31 other Twin Cities locations in November 1983, Prince hadn’t yet conquered Reagan’s white-bread America. Back then, he was still an ambiguous androgyne who sang in a discomfiting falsetto about doing his sister; a musical genius who had, as his album sleeves touted, “produced, arranged, composed and performed” nearly every note on a handful of increasingly visionary LPs; and a hot property who, having just sold two million copies of 1999, seemed infinitely worthy of Warner Bros.’ $7 million investment in a big-screen vehicle. By the time it was released nine months later, Purple Rain (screening Wednesday in Stevens Square Park), following closely on the heels of the fastest-selling single in a decade (“When Doves Cry”), found Prince and Minneapolis as the Caligula and ancient Rome of a new, interracial pop world. In this, the artist’s “emotional autobiography” (its working title was Dreams) didn’t so much reflect “the Minneapolis scene” as “paint a perfect picture” of it in Technicolor. As a result, more than a few of the Bic-wavers who made the pilgrimage to First Avenue in 1984 and ’85 were made to wonder, “So–where are all the black people?”


Still, if representation can be the next best thing to reality (and sometimes a precursor to it), Prince can indeed be credited with starting a revolution–even if the Purple Rain project was essentially a masturbatory one, made manifest by the film’s penultimate money shot of the Purple One shooting a copious, creamy load from his ax-cum-squirt gun. Befitting a radical movement led by royalty, the movie introduces our guitar-slinging, trench-coat-clad, purple-Harley-riding hero onstage, preaching to the converted (“Dearly beloved…”) before an MTV-inspired flashback finds him primping in front of a backstage mirror. Whatever one thought of Prince’s colossal arrogance in 1984, it was hardly unearned: Prodigious songcraft aside, here was a man who, during “Let’s Go Crazy,” for example, could pound out a piano part with his foot, leap from the keyboard and do the splits in midair, land, grab the mic, pant three times on the beat, twirl 360 degrees, kick both (high) heels, land again, and hit the next riff on his six-string–all in less than ten seconds.



Alt Screen’s own Jesse P. Finnegan wrote about the Prince musical for The L Magazine back in December:

In a perfect world, every film would begin with the opening sequence of Purple Rain. Not like the opening sequence of Purple Rain, mind you, but quite literally with the very first 8 minutes of Prince’s epic, epochal (p)opera simply tacked onto the front end of every movie ever, like some kind of pulse-quickening, nipple-hardening Academy Leader. Exultant backbeat, flicker of mirror shades and vinyl-clad cleavage, rampant, full frontal eyeliner applications, lascivious fret-fingering, and oh those glorious planes of neon slicing across each and every preening tableaux!


Vincent Canby, writing when the movie was released, wasn’t so kind:

Purple Rain, which introduces Prince, the rising young rock performer, to theatrical films, is probably the flashiest album cover ever to be released as a movie.


Going on:

The offstage stuff is utter nonsense. Mr. Magnoli, whose first theatrical film this is, has seen to it that the movie is so efficiently edited that the story ends sometime before the movie does. This is all right because it allows the movie to close with two successive musical numbers, which, in ”Purple Rain,” are the only things that count.



Finnegan again, with a rebuttal:

For all its over-seriousness and overt silliness, all that really needs to be said about the 90 minutes draped so lovingly between those performance set pieces, is that it is still so much better than it ever had to be. Any film featuring the entirety of this album is already awesome by default, but Purple Rain is a better movie written for a song than most songs written for a movie.


Dave Kehr, in The Chicago Reader, was not so positive. Noting that the film is “supposedly autobiographical, but if that’s true, Prince must have grown up in a retirement community for burned-out screenwriters.” Going on, saying that the plot:

…serves only to set [Prince] up as a paragon of artistic integrity, sexual prowess, and superhuman sensitivity. The story dynamics dictate that the film should have climaxed with Prince graciously accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, but instead director Albert Magnoli casually tosses the story aside, ending with half an hour of the concert footage that is the film’s only reason for being.



The egotism of the movie, though, is part of its perverse appeal to Finnegan:

Perhaps few movies seem built to date as quickly, but 26 years later Purple Rain remains not only a rock movie paragon, but as sturdy as a self-styled mega-star autobiopic can be. By the time Michael Jackson got around to stretching himself across a feature film, it saw him saving kids from drug- peddling Gestapo and transubstantiating into a spaceship. Prince conceived a movie wherein he is a petty, paranoid, misogynist prick… in the parlance of the month, a douchebag.


Perhaps the original Variety review comes close to summarizing the movie’s appeal:

Concert sequences, by Prince.


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