Purple Rain isn’t a great film in the traditional sense. The plot’s messy and the characterization fluctuates as wildly as the tone. Obviously, this came around at the earliest height of MTV, so much of it is built around the blueprint stages of the music video. Basically, think of Purple Rain as the origin point for narrative long form videos, alongside contemporary Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. It’s basically a concert film with a rather loose plot tethering scenes together. Yet, while that plot isn’t necessarily complex or as revolutionary as Prince‘s back up band named after that word, Purple Rain aims more for brief crucial moments of heightened emotion more than it ever does a consistent plot. Sort of like an elaborate feature length music video.
The coherence of Purple Rain‘s plot is secondary to the emotional context of its main character
Prince “The Kid.” Through visual short hand, we get the basic troubled youth situation he’s in. He’s pressured into compromising his ego for the sake of commerce, his band and his lady love. He’s in a rivalry with competing musician/over the top cartoon Morris Day. His father (played with surprisingly nuanced menace by Clarence Williams III) as been beating his wife senseless. All of these thing clearly weight heavily on The Kid and are slowly break him down as a person and change him ultimately as an artist. One willing to compromise and find some kind of connection with others. Of course, this plot seems kind of unconvincing when his songs throughout are all Prince songs. Even the songs performed by Day or the Apollonia 6 could easily fit in with Prince’s style at the time, even if they’re sung by a much different talents.
Of course, the inconsistencies of the plot of Purple Rain aren’t what ultimately matter. That plot is an extension/excuse to see Prince perform. As an actor, he’s often quite over the top, bordering on silly whenever he attempts to fight off his more intense father. Yet, Prince has this affable aura to him that grounds his stage persona. It makes the seemingly alien creature that was Prince seem human. The practical jokes, the untapped aggression, the passionate sexuality. It puts a person behind the man we see perform one of the best albums of the 1980s. Still, the main events here are the performances and boy do they live up to the reputation Prince made for himself. Director Albert Magnoli had previously worked as Prince’s manager, so his previous career had the exact same goal that these concert scenes executed perfectly: selling Prince’s image. The image of a small package pouring every single oozing drop of energy into every performance, most of which were shot live to glorious results. Every song has its own thematic energy to it. The opening “Let’s Go Crazy” number serves as an energetic showcase for the behind the scenes action of the First Avenue Club. “Darling Nikki” has the bitter sexual contempt of a man jealous of rivaling interests. The titular song has the regretful tempo of a man realizing his boyish insecurities are feeble ones.
All the performances push the narrative along far more convincingly than the plot does, picking up the slack in the way an album ratchets up stylistically. It’s honestly a shame that “When The Doves Cry” is merely used as a montage since it has so much potential for a grand Prince performance. If it was half as exciting as any of the other live numbers showcased here, it’d be an incredibly vibrant cinematic one. Seeing these numbers on a big screen (as I was able to for this viewing) give off the closest possible vibe of seeing Prince live, especially for someone like myself who never got the chance to before the tragic events that happened this past Thursday. Purple Rain is the best case scenario for the concept of a full length feature music video, one with an extraneous plot and characters who barely seem to fit into the same film. Yet, it never loses sight of its central purpose for existing: the vibrant image and unrelenting energy of its star. Prince was never the best actor, but his veracious ability to be a performer more than makes up for any sort of short comings. The final number has Prince declaring that “Baby, I’m A Star.” A presumptuous claim, but one Prince could easily make without a word against it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Prince Motorcycles