30 Purple Years: Walking Through The Cinematic Thunderstorm of Purple Rain

Wednesday, June 25th, marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Prince and The Revolution’s Purple Rain. In honor of this, Deadshirt presents an entire week of art and essays that explore and celebrate one of the greatest albums of all time. Dig, if you will. 

[EXTERIOR: Deadshirt staffers Dominic Griffin and Max Robinson stand before a majestic Minnesota lake, tossing stones and pouting funkily]

Max: Dom?

Dom: Yes, Max.

Max: Is the review warm enough?

Dom: Yes, Max.

Max: Shall we begin?

Dom: Yes, Max. Purple Rain, being a product of the ’80s, is often looked back upon with a kitschy tint, the sort of demeaning admiration that comes with ironic distance. It’s easy to dismiss it as a “bad movie” that we all just champion because, you know, Prince, but it’s so much more than that.

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Purple Rain is about a musician called The Kid who is about as much Prince as Johnny in The Room was Tommy Wiseau. There’s a bit of Jem and The Holograms action as his band The Revolution vies for attention against rival acts like The Time and Dez Dickerson. A beautiful young singer named Apollonia acts as our audience surrogate, being introduced into the music scene as she becomes caught in a love triangle between The Kid and The Time’s Morris Day.

When Purple Rain first came out, we were both negative years old, and yet, here we are, thirty years later, devoting a week of our lives to the infinite majesty of The Purple One’s most stunning achievement.

Max: Y’know, I didn’t get into Prince until kinda late into college, like junior year, so my first exposure to Purple Rain (the film) didn’t come until maybe like 5 years ago? I watched it a ton, though, after I bought the DVD sort of sight unseen. There’s a hypnotic quality to the movie that’s really hard to pin down. It’s insanely rewatchable. It’s clichéd to say this, but the movie has such a lived-in quality to it; I always find myself searching for little details when like Morris and the club owner are walking through downtown Minneapolis, or at all the creepy dolls and knickknacks in Prince’s room.

Dom: Moreso than other ’80s movies I fell in love with as a kid, I will watch Purple Rain ANY time it is on. I’ve been late to social events because it came on TV and I didn’t want to leave the house until the credits. I saw it pretty young, because my mom was a big Prince fan from the Controversy/Dirty Mind era, and for whatever reason, she let me watch it with her. I remember getting serious about Prince whenever Musicology came out, and going back and filling in all the gaps. After high school, some of my close friends caught purple fever and it became a mainstay of drinking nights.

Max: Being a white kid from the suburbs and growing up around parents who mostly listened to classic rock or stuff like Jackson Browne and UB-40 meant I pretty much had to discover cool music on my own, for better or worse. It’s interesting to talk to my friends who grew up on Prince or watched this movie when they were really young because I can’t even imagine what that was like. This movie is a glimpse at a place and time that is completely alien to me. Maybe that’s why I’m so fascinated by it.

Dom: It was weird, because Prince is such a striking figure. He’s androgynous, but as a kid, that’s less weird. My mom had a lot of gay friends, so dudes dressed up like Lestat in vibrant colors wasn’t that foreign. It still seemed odd, in the context of a film about a music scene, for everyone in it to look so stylized and grand. I remember asking my mom why everyone dressed that way and her response was that “It was the ’80s. We all dressed like superheroes.” The larger-than-life aspect of the film might be part of why it’s endured so long.

Dom: What’s so crazy to me about Purple Rain is that everyone regularly lauds Michael Jackson (rightfully) for his insane music video work, when Prince basically took one of the greatest albums ever made and turned into a successful film, with NO movie experience whatsoever.

Max: As a film, Purple Rain is really interesting because it’s this daywalker hybrid of concert movie and pseudo-biopic. I hear people call Purple Rain a musical, but it’s not like people are breaking into song on the street, it’s a melodrama that is built around performances. It’s the 1984 equivalent of Rhapsody In Blue in so much as it’s this totally staged Prince creation myth. It’s worth pointing out that there are only three real actors in this movie; Purple Rain is largely made up of Prince’s peers/proteges playing these fictional versions of themselves. In some ways that hamstrings the movie, but I also think that’s part of why the movie is so charming. It’s like “outsider acting” or something but with the added challenge of making a movie whose story beats have to correspond to a mostly completed album.

Dom: The fact that Prince builds this insane story with himself as the center is really fascinating, too. Like, his chief rival in the film is a band whose music he himself has composed. That’s like Eminem writing all of Papa Doc’s rhymes in the end of 8 Mile.

Max: We wanna chalk that up to narcissism, and yeah that’s probably a part of it, but so many elements of this movie aren’t particularly flattering to Prince. It’s pretty upfront about “The Kid” being an abusive asshole. The film’s major subplot revolves around Wendy and Lisa being the ones who wrote “Purple Rain” and Prince refusing to listen to their demo. That’s nuts!

Dom: It feels like a hypercharged, rock & roll version of the kind of solipsism Woody Allen made a whole career of, only with vastly more dramatic arcs, in terms of self actualization and growth. Also, DAT PUPPET. I don’t know if anything in the history of cinema tickles me quite as much as Prince and that hand puppet.

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Max: Since you bring that up, the tone deaf, bad comedy really reminds you that this is a movie made by, uh, not-actors. Prince playing with that puppet, Morris and Jerome’s super drawn out “who’s on first” routine.

Dom: It’s the pitfall of any film this ambitious that tries to succeed in multiple genres simultaneously. At times, the film has the tonal inconsistency of a Tyler Perry film. You can’t have music that good, drama that deep, and comedy that is actually hilarious. I mean, you can, but you’d have to surround Prince with more interesting/talented/experienced performers. Just imagine if Eddie Murphy played Morris Day.

Max: Honestly, I think Morris Day really brings it. He’s pretty limited in what he can do, but he’s amazing at just *being* himself and the film gives him a couple of character moments I love. The moments where Day’s huckster persona slips a little and we see how his beef with The Kid comes from a place of jealousy and insecurity really humanize him.

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Dom: This is true. He brings a singular charm and presence that more than make up for his limited acting ability. I also personally maintain that Morris’ performance is what Sam Rockwell based his interpretation of Justin Hammer off of in Iron Man 2. They even dance similarly.

Max: If Iron Man 2 had ended with Justin Hammer undergoing a spiritual metamorphosis after watching Tony Stark make the best robot suit of all time, it’d have saved the third act.

Dom: I do wish the women in the film, particularly Apollonia, were as well drawn.

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Max: Every woman in this movie is a moron except for Wendy and Lisa, who get to be enigmatic and cool but are almost completely forgotten about by the end of the movie. Like, I can’t stress this enough, they WROTE “PURPLE RAIN,” the song that ties the movie together at the end. Where was the scene of The Kid patching things up with them and admitting they made a great song?

Dom: I would have even settled for a knowing glance from across the room. Just some visual acknowledgement that he was being a fucking idiot and they were right and he owes them until the end of forever. There’s also some really problematic shit, outside of the women characters themselves. Like, the Lake Minnetonka scene is a classic and all of that, but The Kid tricking a woman into getting naked in cold ass water just feels weird, considering he’s the hero of the story. Not to mention Jerome LITERALLY throwing a woman into a garbage can.

Max: On one level, Morris having Jerome pick up Sheila E. and toss her into the trash is really, really funny. But then immediately after you laugh you kind of catch yourself and feel bad. The treatment of women is sort of counter to the message of many of the songs on the album, too. “The Beautiful Ones” is a song about the object of Prince’s desire having agency but he… kidnaps her on a motorcycle in Act II? The Kid hitting Apollonia in a fit of rage ends up opening a big bag of worms that a movie like this ultimately isn’t capable of dealing with. On one hand, the film doesn’t glamorize or shy away from how ugly that scene is. But then it’s papered over later when they ultimately reconcile.

Dom: I wonder if some of that contradiction comes from Prince being a musician first, a medium where there’s room for interpretation, and ultimately things can be sketched out and filled in by emotions and sounds, versus in film, where you can’t just drop a scene like that and not pay it off in some way later.

Max: The whole movie feels like an opera. Everything’s hyper-exaggerated. Everyone makes emotional decisions, not rational ones. And I think that’s where the movie ends up succeeding. The best parts of Purple Rain, besides the musical performances, obviously, are scenes like Prince and Apollonia driving through nature or the moment where Prince confronts his father in the basement at the piano.

Dom: It feels like the midway point between A Streetcar Named Desire and Easy Rider.

Max: Even though it’s sort of nonsensical and abstract, I love that the throughline of this movie is Prince’s fear of becoming his father, and failing as a musician, as a partner, and as a man.

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Dom: Exactly. It’s a fantastic premise and a powerful peg to hang a film on. At times, you can’t help but wonder what a better made version of the film would be like, with more accomplished screenwriters or a more visionary director, but the film already had one unimpeachable genius behind it. I doubt more than one could have coexisted. Whether or not this is the best possible version of Purple Rain that could have been made is irrelevant, as this is the one we got and have held dear to our hearts for three decades.

Dom: We’ve said multiple times how incredible the musical performances are, but I have to say my personal favorite is the performance of “Darling Nikki.” Prince looks like a sort of vengeful Sex Zorro, and his entire delivery of the song is full of this weird derision that can only physically manifest as aggressive floor humping. It’s like he has a seizure of jealousy and frustration. I cannot count how many times in life I have been angry about something and wanted to flop on the floor like a dying salamander the way Prince does here. What about you?

Max: I guess this is an obvious answer but the actual performance of “Purple Rain” at the end is so great. Immaculate performance, and the way they capture sections of the audience in life-changing awe of what is happening in front of them. Watching people just get swept up in the moment. The movie sort of runs out of plot at the end there and the “Purple Rain” performance segways into basically just concert footage of “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star” and it’s awesome. 

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Max: It’s interesting to compare Purple Rain to the 1989 Batman film, a Prince project also celebrating a birthday this week. While Tim Burton was unable to pair as much of Prince’s music to Batman as he’d have liked to, Purple Rain’s end result is a pretty seamless partnership. While everything about Batman has a studio blueprint quality to it, Purple Rain feels like a freak, irreproducible accident, warts and all.

Dom: No musician before or since has made a film on this scale, despite many trying. Your Beyoncés may make album-length music videos and things of that nature, but only Prince possessed the singular passion and verve to create something as everlasting as Purple Rain.

Max: It’s authentic, which is not something I’d expect to say about a movie that is so built around artifice and stage personas. It’s a movie obsessed with contradictions that is also, well, pretty contradictory in terms of message. Really, it’s ten pounds of Prince in a two gallon box.

Dom: And that’s really more than enough. Any more Prince and all of a sudden we’re crossing Graffiti Bridge, the Moonwalker to Purple Rain‘s Thriller. No, Purple Rain is just right.

Read more from 30 Purple Years, our tribute to Prince’s Purple Rain!

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