Eric Clapton was once asked what it felt like to be the greatest guitarist alive. His response was “I don’t know, ask Prince”. His death marks the end of an era for pop music, as one of the most defining figures of the genre, and of music in general. So I can’t think of a better time to look back at the legendary rock drama, ‘Purple Rain’.
A victim of his own anger, the Kid (Prince) is a Minneapolis musician on the rise with his band, the Revolution, escaping a tumultuous home life through music. While trying to avoid making the same mistakes as his truculent father (Clarence Williams III), the Kid navigates the club scene and a rocky relationship with a captivating singer, Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero). But another musician, Morris (Morris Day), looks to steal the Kid's spotlight and his girl.
It’s difficult to talk about ‘Purple Rain’ without going off on a tangent about the nature of Prince as an artist and describing his incredible career because this film acts as a personification of all that was great about him. The plot may be somewhat thin and it serves only as fancy padding around each musical set piece, which is fine by me because if there was ever an excuse to showcase an artist’s best work all in one 111 minute package, this may be the best way to do it.
This is a performer who did so much more than sing, he helped redefine the culture of his era. I saw an interesting review of his impact today, one that stated that it was sadly poignant that Prince’s death comes in the same year as David Bowie’s, both performers who defied what a man had to be, whose music transcended gender. It was no accident that Prince’s band was called The Revolution.
Today’s popular musicians have this notion that the only way to make a movie is some documentary about whatever tour they’re undergoing that year, then spend a while moping about their difficult lifestyles and literally say to the camera at some point “I put a lot of effort into my music”. This wasn’t the case with the artists of yesterday, The Beatles had ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, Pink Floyd had ‘The Wall’ and Prince had ‘Purple Rain’.
‘A Hard Day’s Night’ follows a day in the life of The Beatles (or at least that’s what I want to believe, every day for them in 1964 was exactly like that one) and ‘The Wall’ was a nightmarish psychedelic, dystopian rock opera. But as for ‘Purple Rain’, it’s essentially one music video after another, a short set up for the story which is ultimately resolved through a song, somehow. But at the same time there’s a depth and substance to them, not just random images to occupy you while the music plays, they are really trying to say something dramatic with this stuff. Each song evokes a new form of emotion and drama that moves the narrative forward, it introduces a bit more about Prince’s character and his overall development. As Gene Siskel said in his review “I think this movie should be studied for how it uses music dramatically.” Siskel would go on to name it the fifth best movie of that year and his enthusiasm was shared by his ever present partner, Roger Ebert who also enjoyed the film immensely, describing it as “electrifying”.
Even if Prince himself wasn’t the greatest actor in the world (shocking I know, although Siskel and Ebert both praised his performance) his charisma and sheer magnetism just shines through for every minute of screen time. I can’t think of many rock stars who would be willing to play a character who still lives at home, let alone make it work as well as he did here. There is such a passion behind every aspect of his work that, going back to the modern “I put a lot of effort into my music” thing, my point is that we never needed Prince to say it because it was so blatantly obvious. He ultimately ended up taking home the last ever Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. So even if you want to criticise the man’s acting, it still didn’t stop him taking home an Oscar.
It may seem easy to dismiss the movie but it still stands as perhaps the greatest testament to his artistry and brilliance as a performer, rivalled only by his magnificent live performance at the 2007 super bowl (which is truly fantastic). But what may be even more remarkable about the film is the way in which it contrasts this artistry with reality. There’s a constant struggle for Prince (I know his character is supposed to be called The Kid, but come one, we know it’s Prince) to find a compromise between the restrictions of reality with his young rock star ambition. It’s a somewhat tortured conundrum but whenever the music stirs up, it’s a brief moment of euphoria. It’s how I always felt listening to his music, for those few minutes nothing else really mattered, you’re just caught up in the moment.