Judge Dave Ryan never wanted to be your weekend lover; he only wanted to see you laughing while colorfully moist.
Jesse! N-now Jerome! Yesssssss…(Ohweeoweeoh)
Let's get this out of the way: Purple Rain isn't a Great Moment in Motion Picture History, nor will it be mentioned in the same breath as the great works of Bergman, Fassbinder, Fellini, or Andy Sedaris. It's chock full of relatively poor acting, and the clichéd plot elements don't help matters.
Yet Purple Rain is a great film. It's entertaining as hell—a film that perfectly captures what it's like to be on the cutting edge of a musical sea change. Clichéd as the plot may be, it's roughly autobiographical. The film, and its soundtrack (which sold 10 million copies), are pivotal moments in rock history. It's also the defining work—artistically and musically—of one of the true geniuses of contemporary rock, the enigmatic Minneapolis native Prince Rogers Nelson.
To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the film's release, Warner has remixed and remastered Purple Rain, releasing it in a widescreen format for the first time with a disc's worth of bonus material. The end result is maddeningly inconsistent—fitting for a film about an artist whose career can be described in the same terms.
Facts of the Case
The plot of Purple Rain is really just the true-to-life story of Prince, featuring all the pivotal characters in his life playing themselves (with a few key exceptions), and with some "could-have-happened-but-didn't" dramatic turns thrown in for good measure. What you see is what he was: the child of an interracial couple in lily-white Minnesota; son of a temperamental former musician named John Nelson who witnessed his father beating his mother many times; prone to dressing like an 18th century musketeer. Prince was "different" from day one.
For the film, Prince assumes the persona of The Kid, a Minneapolis rocker who, like Prince himself, fronts a band called the Revolution (guitarist Wendy Melvoin, keyboard players Lisa Coleman and Matt "Doctor" Fink, bassist Mark "Brownmark" Brown, and drummer Robert "Bobby Z" Zajonc as themselves). The Revolution are one of the house bands at a downtown Minneapolis nightspot called the First Avenue Club and Seventh Street Entry (playing itself)—but the crowds aren't all that into The Kid's self-indulgent and introspective music, funky though it may be. The Revolution aren't exactly a happy family, either—Wendy and Lisa want to write songs, but The Kid doesn't even want to listen to them. That rubs the non-Kid members of the band the wrong way.
On the other hand, everyone loves The Time, the arch-rivals of The Revolution. Led by outrageous lead singer Morris Day (himself) and his manservant/percussionist Jerome Benton (himself), the Time are the rough equivalent of Sly and the Family Stone, if they had been fronted by Richard Pryor. Morris never misses a chance to get some digs in at the Kid's expense, although he's not quite openly hostile.
The Kid's home life isn't all that funky, though. First, he's still living in his parents' basement. His father (Clarence Williams III, The Mod Squad) beats up his wife (Olga Karlatos), yet still clearly loves her. The Kid is often breaking the two apart, fearing for his mom's health, only to find them all cuddly later on. It's probably a bit confusing for him, you'd think.
Into the lives of these characters comes the fair Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), who immediately catches the eyes of both Morris and The Kid. She falls for The Kid, but Morris has more pull in the music scene and is conveniently putting together a girl band at that very moment. The Kid becomes very jealous when Apollonia agrees to join Morris's new band, which he promptly names "Apollonia 6." The owner of the First Street club (Billy Sparks) is breathing down his neck, too—as he says, he's got four acts and three slots, so someone's gotta go. Can The Kid get his funky shiznit back together in time to save his career, his girl, and his family?
Change a few of the names above to "Elvis Presley" and "Ann-Margret," and you've got your typical Elvis film; something like Clambake or Speedway. Maybe you could have called it Viva Mankato, if you had so desired. The point is—this isn't an original plot for a rock 'n' roll film. Bands fighting over a girl? Seen it. Bands fighting over fame? Been there. Moody artist seeks, then loses, muse? Check. Nothing—nothing—in Purple Rain is original. So what makes Purple Rain a great film? Two words: veracity and execution.
There's a reason why the themes described above are considered clichés. It's because many people have experiences like those in real life; hence, they often find their way into fiction. Usually the real-life experiences are on a smaller scale than we see in cinema, but it's enough to make stories like these appeal to most people. In some small way, we can all "relate" to the tale. Prince is no different than the rest of us. He had girl trouble, he had family problems, he had rivalries with people seeking the same goals. Purple Rain isn't a documentary about Prince's life—but it's awfully close to being one. Most of what you see on screen actually happened: he did have a professional conflict with Wendy and Lisa (which ultimately led him to break up the Revolution, enabling Wendy and Lisa to record their own album), there was a band called Vanity 6 that featured Prince's then-girlfriend Vanity (in fact, the members of Apollonia 6 in the movie are the two other members of Vanity 6 plus Kotero), he did have a contentious relationship with his abusive father, there was a friendly rivalry between the Revolution and the Time. And, of course, everyone in the film plays themselves.
So even though few of these people have any real acting talent, their on-screen performances—which ultimately amount to just being themselves—have a strong ring of sincerity and truth to them. If "real" actors had played these roles, you may have gotten better performances. But there's no real need for "performance" if you actually experienced what you're supposed to "perform." Just relive it, and it will come, and it will be a more honest portrayal than any actor could possibly create. This is an exceedingly rare situation: a film where inexperienced actors doing a poor job of "acting" actually improves the film. Talented actors would have rendered this story hollow. Instead, it rings true.
None of this would really matter if the film were a disorganized mess. And that's where the beauty of Purple Rain lies. It's a spectacularly designed film that uses music to propel and amplify the story and its underlying themes in a way seldom seen in cinema. Which is all the more surprising when you learn that a first-time director fresh out of USC Film School (Albert Magnoli, Tango & Cash), who by his own admission had never seen a single music video in his life, was behind the camera. Purple Rain is a carousel of color, light, music, androgyny, and style that starts with an attention-grabbing performance of "Let's Go Crazy" and rarely lets up from then on. The transfer is pristine, with only a little digitally-induced noise on some of the more complex lighting effects, so it looks gorgeous. It's just flat-out entertaining, and as a bonus it captures the core essence of the early '80s Minneapolis rock scene in every frame.
But the music…Ohhhhhhhh, the music. There's a reason why this soundtrack sold millions of copies—Prince, one of the true musical geniuses in rock history, has never written a better, more cohesive set of songs in his entire career. In fact, if you're trying to settle on the best album of the entire '80s decade, with both quality and popularity as criteria, there are only three albums that absolutely must be considered: Michael Jackson's Thriller, Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A., and the Purple Rain soundtrack. It's that good. Prince seamlessly blends the raw funk of George Clinton and Sly and the Family Stone, the passionate soul of James Brown, and the scorching guitar work of Jimi Hendrix into his own unique brand of pop-funk that has spawned hundreds of imitators. Unless you've somehow managed to avoid listening to the radio in the past 20 years, you know the songs—"When Doves Cry," "Let's Go Crazy," "I Would Die 4 U," "Take Me With U," "Darling Nikki" (condemned by Tipper Gore and recently covered by the Foo Fighters), and, of course, "Purple Rain" itself, a soaring ballad along the lines of Hendrix's "Little Wing."
Combine this musical base with Prince's unparalleled talent as a live performer, and you're going to get something special. For the performance segments in Purple Rain, Magnoli wisely let Prince and the band just do their usual thing with the cameras (five were used) running. Add some skilled editing, and you have the best non-concert-film performances ever. The opening "Let's Go Crazy" performance/montage is miles better than the actual "Let's Go Crazy" music video. "Darling Nikki" is riveting—not only a breathtaking performance by Prince, but also used for dramatic purposes in the film as a means for The Kid to indirectly tell Apollonia that he now thinks she's a whore. But it all pales next to the final performance of "Purple Rain," a legitimate "goosebumps" moment. The sheer cathartic joy of "I Would Die 4 U/Baby I'm A Star" that follows is the perfect capper.
But wait, there's more! Not only do you get Prince at his best, you also (at no additional cost) get Morris Day and the Time at their peak as well. The Time began life as Flyte Tyme, a Minneapolis funk band founded by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis—two men who would later reshape pop music via their production work with Janet Jackson. Eventually, the struggling Flyte Tyme combo morphed into The Time, and attracted the attention of Prince. When Prince hit it big, he "adopted" the Time and began to guide their career. Fronted by a charismatic ex-drummer and friend of Prince named Morris Day, the Time were a fun-time band that crunched out super-funky dance music Sly Stone would have enjoyed. Jam and Lewis were gone from the band by the time of Purple Rain, but Morris—equal parts Superfly, Shaft, and George Jefferson—was still front and center.
The Time get two performance numbers in the film, for their songs "Jungle Love" and "The Bird" (each of which charted for them after the film's release). Their saucily groovy dance tunes are a welcome respite from Prince's mainly intense and serious pieces—and, much like the Prince performances, they're extremely well-photographed. Day and Benton also serve as the semi-malevolent foils for The Kid from a dramatic standpoint—and they almost steal the film right out from under Prince. The two have a breezy chemistry of the type that can only come from a real friendship. Even a klutzy (and unnecessary, except as padding) version of the Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine is almost entertaining in their hands. Even when they're viciously putting The Kid down right to his face, it's hard to hate them. (And in that sense, they ultimately fail as characters. They're too goofy to pose a real threat to The Kid, and both bands are good enough that you never really doubt that both will find success.)
No discussion of Purple Rain would be complete without an analysis of its prominent place in rock history. Purple Rain is the first true "rock musical"—a film in which the music is inspired by, and serves to advance, the plot and theme of the film (as with a traditional musical, e.g. Oklahoma), but also a film that is inextricably tied to the style and sound of the artist it stars. After all, Oklahoma has been performed by everyone from Shirley Jones to Hugh Jackman—but take Prince out of Purple Rain, and it's a completely different piece. Purple Rain was also the first film to take the working concepts and styles of the then-new music video field onto the big screen.
MTV was barely three years old when Purple Rain debuted in 1984. Prior to the rise of MTV, music videos had been cheap, generally poorly-made promotional clips designed to be shown in dance clubs. They often were just shots of the band/artist in questions lip-syncing their songs, much like the typical talk/variety show "performances" of the day. In the early 1980s this paradigm changed, thanks largely to the work of Michael Jackson and other artists (such as Madonna, Godley and Creme, the Rolling Stones, the Talking Heads, and Duran Duran, to name a few) who produced videos that were designed to be mini-movies—clips that told a story (often, but not always, the story told in the song), starring the artist him- or herself. No one, though, had made that next logical leap: merging not just a song, but an entire album's worth of music into a coherent filmed narrative.
Bands had flirted with the concept in the past, of course. Ken Russell and The Who had turned Pete Townshend's "rock opera" Tommy into a true filmed opera. But, as a musical isn't an opera no matter how you look at it, Tommy was not a "musical" in the theatrical sense. In Tommy, as in opera, the music was the story; it and it alone drove the narrative. Take #2 for the Who, 1979's Quadrophenia, was less operatic—but instead, it was closer to the Elvis paradigm: a movie designed to showcase, not incorporate, a set of music. In fact, you could pull the music out of Quadrophenia entirely and still have a great film. It, too, fell short of being a true "rock musical." The Beatles had come close in 1967 with Magical Mystery Tour, a surreal hour-long show made for British television. Magical Mystery Tour adopted the musical format—songs integral with the plot—but did so in such a disorganized and unsatisfying way that it can only be described as a noble failure on their part. (What of the Beatles' movies? Well, Help! fell into the Elvis model; A Hard Day's Night and Yellow Submarine were really the first true "music videos.")
Not until Prince decided, with his immense ego and equally immense talent, that he wanted to be a movie star was this merger accomplished. As the commentaries and documentaries on this DVD illustrate, from the moment Purple Rain was conceived, Prince had a precise story in mind, and knew that he could write new songs integral to the task of telling that story on film. (More on the commentaries/documentaries later…) The music and the motion picture would be inseparable, and both would reflect the personality and style of Prince himself. In the end, that is exactly what wound up on screen.
Ironically, in the twenty years since Purple Rain, no other artist or film has come close to repeating the formula. Prince and Magnoli accomplished it so well that it would be very, very difficult to top it. I'd say the closest attempt to date was the Whitney Houston film The Bodyguard. But that film was really part of a new trend unto itself; films where selling the soundtrack was the primary goal of the entire project—an outgrowth of the success of the Purple Rain soundtrack.
That's not to say that Purple Rain hasn't been influential. The visual style used by Magnoli in the film became the de facto standard for music videos, and is widely imitated to this day. Similarly, the same techniques used to capture the live Prince performances are seen in today's concert films. For example, prior to Purple Rain, few directors/cinematographers would allow the crowd and their waving hands into the frame, since they felt it would be a distracting visual element. Magnoli thought it centered the "live" aspect of the performance, and made sure that the crowd can be seen in almost every shot. Today, that's the way virtually every "live" video is done.
Prince's success in transitioning from a rock career to a film career also affected rock stars, not just rock videos. In the 1950s, this kind of transition was almost a given for pop or early rock singers. See, for example, Elvis, Annette, Fabian, Frankie Valli, Frank Sinatra, and so forth. Then, with the death of the Beach Blanket Bingo style of movie, the singer-cum-movie star almost disappeared completely. Occasionally country music would produce a Kris Kristofferson or Dolly Parton who would make the transition, but no rock star crossovers were to be seen. Until Prince managed to do it. His post-Purple Rain film career was definitely spotty…but he had done it. Since then, the Whitney Houstons and Mariah Careys and Jennifer Lopezes of the world have a realistic chance of crossing over into film.
Those are Prince's and Purple Rain's legacies to the music world. Because of them, Purple Rain is more important to the history of rock and its visual characteristics than its base quality would seem to indicate.
This package from Warner Brothers definitely doesn't overlook this significance. The set of documentaries included on the second disc do a good job of placing Purple Rain in its proper context, both from a Minneapolis music scene standpoint and from the greater pop culture standpoint. "First Avenue: The Road to Pop Royalty" covers the former, recounting the history of the famous First Avenue club that spawned not only Prince, but other great Minneapolis acts like the Replacements and Hüsker Dü. "Riffs, Ruffles and a Revolution" deals with the latter, examining how the unique style of Purple Rain was created, and how it impacted society in general. Finally, footage from the MTV "premiere party" for Purple Rain adds a bit of historical seasoning. It's mainly filler for this set, and lacks any real insight into Prince or the movie itself, but it's still kind of amusing to see "Weird Al" Yankovic making chit-chat with John Cougar Mellencamp.
The package also includes eight music videos: the original MTV-version videos for "Let's Go Crazy," "When Doves Cry," and "Purple Rain" from Prince; "Jungle Love" and "The Bird" from The Time; and "Sex Shooter" from Apollonia 6. Alas, these videos were not digitally remastered in any way, and look (as you may have surmised) pretty awful compared to the remastered feature. Sound for the videos is straight stereo—again, a tad disappointing. The "Sex Shooter" video is laughably bad: a five-minute time capsule of every single thing that was wrong with most early '80s videos. But redeeming the collection are two live performances taken from the as-yet-unreleased-on-DVD concert video Prince and the Revolution LIVE!. A quick run by the band through "Take Me With U" is fun, but a showstopping (and show-closing) twenty minute jam on "I Would Die 4 U/Baby I'm A Star" is almost worth the price of the disc alone. If anyone had any doubts about the power of Prince's live performances after watching the movie, this video should put them to rest.
Rounding out the extras is a well-done behind-the-scenes documentary that contains a lot of good information; albeit a lot of information that's also recounted in the commentary track. All of these documentaries feature interviews with many of the principals involved in Purple Rain, including most of the Revolution. (Fans will be amused to see Doctor Fink and Bobby Z acting like grownups…) They also feature quite a bit of material with Terry Lewis and Jimmy Jam—who didn't have anything to do with the film or with Prince by 1984, but who are still two of the most intelligent and well-spoken guys working in the business, and who give a great deal of perspective on Prince's roots. Any time they talk about music, it's worth listening. Plus, they're exceptionally snappy dressers.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Unfortunately, there are some significant flaws marring this package. On the whole, it's still a valuable set for fans of the movie and Prince, and it's still a better copy of the film than anything previous, but I'm left with the feeling that Warner could have hit this one out of the park, but instead settled for a run-scoring double.
The biggest, and most disappointing, flaw in this Purple Rain package is the film's sound. The film is advertised as being remastered into Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound. And, indeed, all of the songs in the film are done in surround—and done fairly well. It appears the sound engineers attempted to capture a "you are there" feeling with the sound, and it's mixed in such a way as to give the impression that you're in a small club listening to the music. The tracks, though, are way too low in volume. At times, it sounds like you're outside a small club listening to the band playing inside. But that's fairly easy to fix—just turn the volume up.
However, turning the volume up exposes the real problem with the sound—everything else in the film is driven through the center channel. There are occasional stereo effects, but for the most part this film is effectively in mono! This is dramatically, and horribly, evident right from the opening scene, an extended performance of "Let's Go Crazy" interspersed with scene-setting vignettes. The music is, of course, coming from all sides via the 5.1 mix. But anytime a character talks, or there's any sort of sound effect (hands clapping, glasses clinking, etc.), there's an audible "return" of the original track straight through your center channel, at about a 50% higher volume level than the music. It gives the film the sonic effect of an extremely poorly dubbed and looped foreign film—like Gamera vs. Barugon or the like. It's obvious what happened here—there are no copies of the individual film audio tracks available; all that's left is the theatrical stereo downmix. Hence, the audio engineers had to extract the music from that mix and use it to generate the pseudo-5.1 track for everything but the music. For the music, Warner probably just used the original studio multitrack source tapes to remix the songs. Okay, I'll give them points for trying—but given this outcome, it probably would have been a lot better to simply clean up the stereo track and release the best possible stereo Purple Rain instead. For a film that's really all about sound, it's a shame that the sound is so spotty in this release.
This shouldn't surprise anyone who is a fan of the man, but it should be mentioned: this package is completely devoid of any participation by The Artist Formerly and Currently Known As Prince. Why isn't this a surprise? Well, you see, Prince spent about a decade attempting to force Warner Brothers to void his recording contract. We'll likely never know what's going on inside the Purple Head, but apparently Prince felt that Warner was not going to accept his desire to produce whatever the heck he wanted to whenever he chose to do so. They wanted "Purple Rain II" and "Purple Rain III" in the hopes of making tons more money. His Royal Badness wanted to do jazz albums and classical compositions and highly experimental electronic funk and whatever else caught his fancy. So he revolted. That whole "changing my name to an unpronounceable symbol" stuff? The wildly inconsistent album releases? Pulling the "Black Album" entirely weeks before its scheduled release? All designed to irk Warner enough to drop him on their own. Eventually it worked, but it was a messy and caustic battle. So don't expect Prince to lift a finger to help Warner Brothers in any way ever. Hence, no participation in this 20th Anniversary release. Obviously, Prince's insight and thoughts about the project would have been a tremendous asset to the package as a whole. But it ain't gonna happen, so just put it out of your mind.
For the most part, no one in Purple Rain had ever done any acting prior to this film, and it shows. If you're looking for professionalism and talent, look further. It isn't here. Prince himself shows some talent, but it's very raw and undeveloped. Kotero is earnestly good-natured, and certainly attractive, but can't act her way out of a paper bag in this film. Day and Benton actually do the best job of them all, on the whole—but they're mainly comic relief and aren't trying to be dramatic. I didn't think any of this amateurism brought down the film (as described above), but some people might—so in the interest of full disclosure, it's here in the rebuttal section.
I think that some African-Americans may object to Morris Day and Jerome Benton's characters in this film. One could view their roles as almost minstrel-like; a pair of jive-talking Stepin Fetchits. I prefer to view them as broad caricatures of the type of guy who wears an all-yellow suit (with fur coat) and a fedora to a dance club, spoofing them without necessarily judging them in any way. But be warned.
The menu interface for the first disc—the one with the film itself—contains a cheesy computer-generated version of Prince's silhouette "performing." It's not good computer animation, and it looks more like the Imperious Leader from Battlestar Galactica getting his air guitar groove on after a few months on the South Beach diet. However, I guess it should get some credit for making me laugh every time I saw it.
Finally—and this is a bit nitpicky—the commentary track is a bit lacking in substance. It's done by director Magnoli, his cinematographer Donald Thorin (who worked on Michael Mann's first feature, Thief), and co-producer Bob Cavallo. Yes, they're interesting. Yes, they do give a lot of insight into the problems they faced in getting the film made. But…this is a film starring Prince! Where's the dirt? By their comments, Prince was hard-working, easy to direct, polite, and very talented. A pleasure to work with. That's probably all true…but it's boring! This is supposed to be rock and roll! Come on, guys—make stuff up if you have to! "One time, we wrapped early, and Prince and the band went and dropped 49 tabs of acid and had group sex with Carly Simon and a panther…"
Purple Rain is a difficult film to review. On the one hand, it's a well-filmed bunch of amateurs doing their best to act, but not doing that great a job of it, in a rock and roll musical. On the other hand, it's one of the defining moments in rock history. How do you review something that's objectively mediocre, but subjectively fantastic? When in doubt, rely on one simple question: is it entertaining? And in the case of Purple Rain, the answer is a resounding "yes." Flaws notwithstanding, this 20th Anniversary set is a quality release for a significant film.
Suspended sentence. All your records will be expunged if you do 20 hours of community service for botching the audio track. And please—be considerate of your neighbors when you go crazy, get nuts, and punch a higher floor, okay?
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Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary Track
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