Back in 2019, Purple Rain was selected by the sexy-sounding Library of Congress and entered into the United States National Film Registry of culturally important films. That’s probably fair enough given that this is easily the best showcase for the hugely popular and influential musician formerly and probably forever known as Prince. But before he turned himself into a symbol, Prince was big news back in 1984; a song-writer, performer and a tiny prancing seahorse of a man, Prince looked set to be an enduring movie star too with this debut; it only took a couple of resounding flops (Under the Cherry Moon, Graffiti Bridge) for that particular strand of his career to be hastily abandoned.
So how does Purple Rain actually look from 2023, some seven years after his death? Directed by Albert Magnoli and co-written with William Blinn, who’d scored a notable hit with his work on Alan Parker’s Fame, Purple Rain starts brilliantly with the full intro to Let’s Go Crazy, a fist-pumping single stretched out over the first seven minutes of the film. Even the WB logo looks great with this playing over the top; ‘Dearly beloved, We are gathered here today, To get through this thing called “life”, Electric word, life, It means forever and that’s a mighty long time, But I’m here to tell you there’s something else, The afterworld, A world of never ending happiness, You can always see the sun, day or night…So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills, You know the one, Dr. Everything’ll-Be-Alright, Instead of asking him how much of your time is left, Ask him how much of your mind, babe, ‘Cause in this life, Things are much harder than in the afterworld, In this life, You’re on your own, And if de-elevator tries to bring you down, Go crazy.’ It’s a terrific song, placed front and centre in Purple Rain’s stealth concert opening and unfortunately this really IS peak Prince; it’s all downhill from here…
Prince plays a thinly disguised version of himself, aka The Kid, a promising young musician navigating the mean streets of Minneapolis; we see him perform songs like the title track, I Would Die for U and When Doves Cry, and the staging is strong enough to persuade of his ability. But the narrative development is less confident; there’s a whole lot of goes-nowhere stuff about the running of the First Avenue nightclub and Prince fashions a shallow backstory about misogyny that doesn’t play well now. A common motif here features women tricked and isolated for fun, from the girl thrown in the trash by Prince’s rival Morris Day to Prince tricking rising talent Apollonia into removing her clothes and swimming in a polluted river; both hero and villain are equally rotten to women. We also see that both Prince and his mother were physically abused by his father, but Prince is also violent towards his Apollonia without any real justification, and the cycle of violence is casually observed rather than questioned or challenged. Prince feels bad about being an abuser, but after a couple of soulful motorcycle rides listening to his own music, he’s back performing again, all is forgiven and everyone is happy.
The promise of Prince disappeared fast; after Sign of the Times, his output became increasingly obscure, and while few disputed his early genius, fewer chose to stay the course. Rampant ego-mania seemed to be a large part of his undoing, and even a breakout work like Purple Rain bears all the traces of the potential issues to come. But culturally significant Purple Rain is; it’s a good example of how talent can flatter to deceive, even if it peaks some ten minutes in. Singing about his previous sexual exploits to annoy his current girlfriend (Darling Nikki) wasn’t a great look even back in 1984, and it’s not any better now; Purple Rain is slick and does reflect Prince, but it’s getting harder and harder to make a case for Prince as the all-encompassing genius that he was once widely hailed as.
Purple Rain was reviewed while streaming last week on the BBC iPlayer.