Following Prince’s shocking, untimely death last week, fans have been given the opportunity to either take a nostalgia trip with arguably his most resonant moment in pop culture or acquaint themselves with the musician who may have been more familiar as a cultural icon than performer. The AMC and Carmike movie theater chains each released Prince’s 1984 movie Purple Rain in a number of theaters throughout the United States beginning on Saturday. The limited run will continue through Thursday.
Additionally, MTV and VH1 replayed Purple Rain several times throughout the past weekend (albeit with commercial breaks and some editing/censoring for basic cable). The movie can also be rented or purchased for streaming via iTunes, Amazon and Google Play, if that’s how you consume your media these days. Though some may have the home theater systems that can make any film pop, getting the chance to see Prince on the big screen and, more importantly, hear Purple Rain on some booming movie theater speakers is an opportunity that hasn’t been available to most for the past 30 years — barring film festivals, brew-and-view nights, and special showings at particular movie theaters that do such cool things.
It’s been a very long time since I watched Purple Rain myself, though I’m old enough — which I hate admitting — to remember having seen it shortly after its home video release. (One of my friends had the coolest dad, who let us watch it during a party.) Even back then, I probably could have told you that Purple Rain is not the best movie. But it didn’t matter. Prince was already an icon of cool that early in his career. After all, he was starring in a movie. He had that motorcycle, he could look cool in a frilly blouse and long purple coat, his girlfriend was the gorgeous Apollonia, and he played to a packed house every time he took the stage.
Best of all, Purple Rain was full of Prince’s music, the soundtrack packed with songs from what turned out to be arguably his best album. (Some will say Sign o’ the Times is his best. They wouldn’t be wrong. Is there really an incorrect- answer?) The movie begins with a montage set to “Let’s Go Crazy,” which should make every other movie envy Purple Rain‘s existence. But unlike many films, in which you see songs from the presumed soundtrack listed in the credits and wonder when some of those tunes were in the film because you don’t remember hearing them, every one of Purple Rain‘s nine original tracks are heard during the film.
Here is the listing:
1. Let’s Go Crazy
2. Take Me With U
3. The Beautiful Ones
4. Computer Blue
5. Darling Nikki
6. When Doves Cry
7. I Would Die 4 U
8. Baby I’m a Star
9. Purple Rain
Most of the songs are performed during the film by Prince when he and his band, The Revolution, are on stage at Minneapolis’ legendary club, First Avenue. (Like many visitors, I’m sure, I almost caused a car crash when driving by the venue years ago and having it pointed out to me. I didn’t just remember the club from Purple Rain, but also for its role in spawning other favorite bands like The Replacements and Husker Du.) But others play over sequences in the film, such as “When Doves Cry” plays while Prince — or “The Kid,” as he was known in this story — takes his motorcycle for a ride into the country and his favorite lakeside escape.
The songs and The Kid’s performance of them on stage essentially tell the story of Purple Rain. That’s fortunate, since many of the non-music scenes in the movie can be painful to watch, either because of stilted writing or awkward acting. The scenes between Prince and Apollonia are entertaining, as the two share on-screen chemistry. And every time Morris Day and his right-hand man Jerome appear, they provide welcome comic relief. (Day also gives us one of the best moments, when he knows he’s gone too far in his rivalry with The Kid.) But if you’re watching at home, you’ll want to fast-forward through nearly every scene in which The Kid deals with his abusive father, the man he’s afraid of becoming.
Purple Rain is far better when it lets the music take the lead. When The Kid meets Apollonia and shares that lakeside refuge with her, “Take Me With U” essentially narrates the scene. When he’s jealous of Apollonia’s associating with Day and wants to humiliate her, he plays the controversial “Darling Nikki” on stage to lash out at her, which nearly gets him kicked out of his First Avenue residency. (This is the song which compelled Tipper Gore to create the Parents Resource Music Center, along with those parental advisory labels seen on albums, a year later. It was Prince’s fault!)
But it’s the title track which makes up the climactic moment of the film, creating the culmination of all the themes and secondary plotlines that we’ve seen to that point. The melody is created by bandmates Wendy and Lisa, who yearn to write their own music and express their own creativity in the band. The Kid sees this as a threat, as his band wanting to step out from under his umbrella and maybe take over as the musical force in the group. When he finally lets go — due to other circumstances in the film that tell him he’s not as alone as he previously thought — that collaboration results in The Kid’s finest moment on stage, showing what he’s truly capable of and winning everyone over.
Facing the dual threat of losing his girlfriend and his gig at First Avenue (and perhaps suffering a devastating loss in his family), The Kid thinks he’s blown it. His song was too personal, not enough of an upbeat crowd-pleaser. But the audience is riveted, as is the club boss. Even Morris Day is touched. Letting it all out and showing his vulnerability results in a triumphant moment. Hearing cheers after expecting boos, The Kid runs back to the stage for an encore, taking a virtual victory lap on stage by performing “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star.”
Ultimately, it’s all about the music, which is really all that makes Purple Rain meaningful, despite the attempts at melodrama and romance. Come for the rock star, stay for the music. And think about what you’re going to have for dinner during the scenes that aren’t worth watching. This was the event that launched Prince into superstardom, the music that made him an iconic figure, that caused an entire culture to mourn last Thursday when news of his passing circulated online and on television.
If you were unfamiliar with Prince, especially with his music, prior to last week, the two hours of Purple Rain provide everything you need to know. Prince had plenty of other triumphant moments as an artist, both creatively and principally, but he was never better than he was in 1984. This is Prince at his peak.