In honor of April, this month we’re going to review movies with the word “Rain” in the title. Something about April showers, or some such. Surprisingly, there’s no shortage of excellent, decent, and deliciously abysmal movies featuring precipitation. So let’s kick it off with a movie that is all three, Prince’s Purple Rain.
One part musical, one part coming of age drama, all varnished with more than a little ego stroking, Purple Rain welds together a bunch of odds and ends into a crazy old tub, that amazingly enough manages to float.
The story of Purple Rain focuses on a talented and troubled young artist called The Kid, played by the musician Prince. The Kid is a young phenom who has started to fizzle out, becoming increasingly isolated from his band mates and his fans. A troubled home life, featuring an abusive father and emotionally disturbed mother, forces The Kid further into his self made on-stage persona, a hyper-sexed and emotionally distant avatar who shuns any meaningful contact with others. His situation comes to a breaking point when a new singer, Apollonia, comes to town, and the two begin a destructive relationship.
Hoping to strike it big in the burgeoning Minneapolis music scene (apparently a thing), Apollonia reflects the early talent and energy The Kid has begun to lose. A rival music act, Morris Day and the Time, hope to crush The Kid and take the top spot at the club they share. They drive a wedge between the disgruntled band members of The Kid’s group, convince management to minimize his stage time, and then sign Apollonia to a new girl-only band. This infuriates The Kid, who lashes out at Apollonia. Having become the image of his abusive father, The Kid falls into despair, and creates stage shows so baroque and lewd that management is poised to kick him to the curb. The Kid further estranges himself from Apollonia, and then returns home just as his father attempts suicide.
Pushed to the edge, The Kid finds redemption in the discarded work of his father, who was also a musician who failed to make it big. Merging the work of his father and his band mates, he creates a fusion that allows him to finally mature. Roll credits.
When Doves Cry
As a story of cruelly wasted youth redeemed through music, Purple Rain comes dangerously close to ABC after-school special material. Prince, a first time actor, is barely capable of the nuance that is required to keep the story from becoming either maudlin or saccharine. Oddly, it is the flamboyance of the film that saves it from sinking under its own weight. The movie is at turns frenetic and self-absorbed, and manages to become so over-the-top in all aspects that it becomes riveting.
The Kid vamps around, on stage and off, Apollonia runs back and forth between abusive relationships like a little idiot, and Morris Day strokes his mustache while doing his best cartoon villain impression…and it all works. The players all take the project so seriously in its insanity, that you get sucked in. It’s so earnest, it skips lightly over the hurdles of credibility, and becomes strangely believable.
Let’s Go Crazy
The greatest strength of Purple Rain is its music: even when it’s awful, it’s pretty great. Morris Day and the Time manage to sing complete nonsense with such style and fervor (not to mention amazingly bad dance choreography) that you feel the audience’s cheering is not all stage direction. Apollonia’s girl band is completely dreadful, but she is such a ninny by that point, you aren’t embarrassed: you’re relieved she sucks. And Prince…
Oh, and Prince! You don’t even have to like his music (I didn’t before watching this!) Nobody believes their own legend making like The Artist, and when he gets on stage it is something to behold. Shirtless or wearing the puffiest, ruffled, purple Jacobin jacket you’ve ever seen, stroking his guitar like a god’s phallus, writhing around on the floor, oozing sweat and sexuality, and making sure everyone present knows he’s got more musical talent in his exquisitely painted eyelashes than most singers have in their bodies: Prince pretty much has this whole rock-star persona thing down pat.
…But is it Art?
Purple Rain made a tremendous amount of money, won an Oscar for its music, and has developed a healthy cult following. Kevin Smith is obviously a fan, and has worked references to the movie in to many of his films. The album, Purple Rain, sold like the proverbial round breakfast food, traditionally eaten with syrup and butter. But is the movie any good?
Yes, and no, and then yes again. If you edit out the drama, and just watch the concert sequences, you have a completely solid musical experience. If you fast forward past all of the songs and just watch the coming of age story, you have a cheesy movie full of dreadful acting that manages to still be entertaining. When you take the two together, you run into problems. The movie feels over-long, since you have either too many songs breaking up the story at climactic moments, or too much campy acting breaking up the excellent song sequences. The boat floats, but you’re going to get your socks wet.
But it’s OK, because everyone gets at least a little wet…in the Purple Rain. Roll Credits.