Directed by: Albert Magnoli
Premise: The lead musician (Prince) of a Minneapolis rock band struggles to find the creative direction for his band The Revolution. Meanwhile he copes with an abusive home life, romances a singer (Apollonia Kotero), and fends off a rival band.
What Works: The only reason to watch Purple Rain is for its musical performances which are astonishing. The movie was made in the heyday of the music video when MTV was still relatively new (and still played music). The musical numbers of Purple Rain combine the rawness and excitement of live performance with the experimental possibilities of the music video. And the musical sequences take up a significant portion of this film; aside from the handful of performances scattered throughout the picture, the last twenty minutes of the movie consists of a series of performances of the songs “Purple Rain” and “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star.” Since the film exists to show off Prince’s musical skill, Purple Rain succeeds on that score. It endures as a testament to Prince’s musicianship and his mastery as a stage performer. The other part of Purple Rain’s value is as a cultural artifact. The movie captures the pop music scene of the mid-1980s, albeit in a cartoonish way, and it gives a sense of the style of that time. It’s also worth mentioning that the flaws of this film are not uncommon among rock star movie vehicles. Blue Hawaii and A Hard Day’s Night suffer from some of the same flaws as Purple Rain and they are similarly adored by their fans.
What Doesn’t: By any metric of judging a feature film, Purple Rain is a lousy movie. Nearly every dramatic aspect of this picture fails. The cast is terrible. There are only three professional actors in the film (Clarence Williams III, Olga Karlatos, and Apollonia Kotero) and it shows. Almost nobody in Purple Rain can act and their line delivery often sounds as though they are reading off of cue cards. When rock stars play versions of themselves in the movies the results are usually self-serving. That is certainly the case in Purple Rain which is about constructing and enhancing Prince’s public image as an elusive musical genius. And as is often the case with a movie like this, the narcissism is off-putting. The Kid is just not interesting or likable. To its credit, Purple Rain does try to add some complexity to The Kid’s character though the domestic abuse in his home life but the movie trivializes this issue in the way it dismisses The Kid’s own brushes with violence. Nobody else in Purple Rain has any depth. Apollonia, the singer who is the object of The Kid’s affections and a pawn in his rival’s scheme, is a vacillating character. She has no qualities of her own. She is just a trophy that passes between the men. The regard for the rest of the women in Purple Rain isn’t any better. This is a consistently sexist and occasionally misogynist movie with the male characters and the filmmakers regarding women as accessories at best, frequently degrading them or making the women look ridiculous. The story of Purple Rain is a mess. There’s little sense of rising action, that the story working toward its climax, and the dramatic complications are forced. Purple Rain is a clumsy movie. Some of that is the fault of the actors but it’s also due to the way director Albert Magnoli stages the action. The material isn’t staged and edited together in a coherent and dramatically satisfying way. The most fundamental flaw of Purple Rain is that there is nothing at stake. The Kid and his band are at risk of losing their spot at the club but this remains vague and there’s no sense of jeopardy. The love story is not engaging at all and Apollonia and Prince have no romantic chemistry, in part because neither of them is able to emote in a way that resembles a human being.
DVD extras: Commentary track, featurettes, music videos, trailers.
Bottom Line: Purple Rain is probably best watched on DVD with the remote in hand to skip from one musical performance to the next. While it fails in storytelling, it does have some great musical performances which is what will draw most people to Purple Rain in the first place.
Episode: #637 (March 5, 2017)