“Thin and flimsy from a storytelling perspective, but undoubtedly energized during countless musical sequences.”
by Ken Bakely
Perpetually perfecting pitched, polished, and purple pop-cultural presentations, Prince’s game-changing style is encapsulated for the screen in Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain. While I never really counted myself among Prince’s many millions of longtime fans, there was something so effortlessly other-worldly about the guy’s style, as he crashed through societal and artistic barriers, cross-pollinating genres and influences to create unique styles that have had a lasting impact over an illustrious career. This particular film is an odd one to analyze. It effectively sets the template for many quasi-concert movies to come after it, a textbook example of a project which is thin and flimsy from a storytelling perspective, but undoubtedly energized during the countless musical sequences which are scattered throughout the length of the picture.
Purple Rain has a story, but not a very well-developed one, and sometimes it feels like it exists simply to facilitate musical numbers. But nevertheless, Prince plays an unnamed character who is a young musician rapidly rising up through the Minneapolis music scene, regularly playing with his band at a First Avenue nightclub. It seems faintly autobiographical in that respect. Known only as The Kid, our protagonist’s electrifying and captivating stage presence is juxtaposed with a nightmarish home life, as his father (Clarence Williams III) is an abusive, emotionally distant figure, often taking out his perpetual rage on The Kid’s already unstable mother (Olga Karlatos). Meanwhile, The Kid faces professional adversity, as rival groups compete for attention, namely one led by a musician named Morris (Morris Day (of The Time)). The future is thrown into a catatonic state – raw talent is not enough to keep going, and sometimes, it feels like nothing is.
Magnoli’s most telling acknowledgement of the fallible nature of the script is how he smartly makes the decision to end Purple Rain on twenty glorious minutes of pure performance. Prince takes the screen by storm in those final moments, dashing away any permanently bad tastes left by the inconsistent plotting which is woven throughout the film’s 111 minute runtime. The formula in this instance is simple – the star is allowed to do what the audience is there to see him do. These concert scenes are photographed magnificently, as Magnoli and cinematographer Donald E. Thorin employ a wide variety of shots, with sweeping wide angles of the crowd fiercely juxtaposed with tight close-ups of Prince, surrounded not only with enveloping sonic presence, but arresting, absorbing lighting.
The acting is a bit in-and-out, especially from non-actors like Prince and Day. Established performers in supporting roles add a bit more to the film in that respect, but once again, the screenplay doesn’t really care how well its lines are being delivered. This movie wants to be billed as a musical, but it essentially plays as a glorified concert film. Ideally, a musical smoothly works songs into its story, but Purple Rain roughly rams a story into its songs. The dialogue and plotting is written around the soundtrack, which makes the final project feel vaguely incomplete, a work-in-progress where some aspects are fired up and ready to go, while others are in the need of a wash and retooling (guess which is which).
But the film is quite enjoyable when taken as a collective experience, mainly because of Prince’s indelible presence as an entertainer shoots through the camera, and is suspended in time and space. It still holds on all these years later, and now, after the man’s death. Prince carries the whole thing on his shoulders, but you’re very much okay with that. Purple Rain’s existence as an elaborate album companion is sturdy enough to validate itself. And there is something admirable about a movie which can take a lengthy sequence of a grown man, decked out in flashy, otherworldly wardrobe, throw him on a souped-up motorcycle as he zips around Minnesota’s largest city in broad daylight, and make the whole thing positively quotidian.