A young man with a talent for music meets an aspiring singer, Apollonia, and finds that talent alone isn't all that he needs.
The front cover of the 1984 soundtrack to the film Purple Rain features one of the most famous images of 1980s American pop culture: Prince, straddling a purple motorbike, sits at night outside a yellow-lit apartment where his caped co-star Apollonia Kotero waits. The scene is drenched in neon-soaked smoke, and at the centre of the image is that face, one of the most beloved (and now one of the most missed) music superstars of the last fifty years. In this image, Prince wears a long purple coat, with flat metal studs forming a quasi-armour on the right shoulder. For Prince fans, the coat was his signature: he teamed it on the cover of 1980’s Dirty Mind album with a pair of high-cut ladies undies, and later (wearing a few more clothes) on the front of 1981’s Controversy LP. But it was 1999 – released the year before Purple Rain exploded into the popular imagination – that was his breakthrough album. 1999 made Prince a star, but Purple Rain made him a legend.
Raking in over $150 million at cinemas around the world and even smashing Ghostbusters off its US box office pedestal when first released in mid-1984, Purple Rain was a breakthrough moment in bringing the ‘Prince look’ and the ‘Prince sound’ together, creating both music and cinema history. Directed by Albert Magnoli and co-written by mastermind of the Fame television series William Blinn, the story goes that Magnoli and Prince nutted out the basics of the film over spaghetti and orange juice in a small diner, a collaboration that would lead to one of the most memorable film musicals of the decade.
Following the story of struggling musician ‘The Kid’ (Prince) and his band The Revolution in working-class Minneapolis, the film juggles his ambitions with a deteriorating home life and blossoming romance with Kotero’s mononymous character, Apollonia. All of this is dotted by vibrant, ageless live performances of some of Prince’s most popular songs: the euphoric Let’s Go Crazy as the film begins, the delightfully sleazy Darling Nikki when he hits a low point, and the title track near the end of the film as he resolves his ego issues with “the girls in the band” – his long-term real-life collaborators Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman – in a scene that even over thirty years later make it near impossible to not want to lift a cigarette lighter into the air and sway like you’ve never swayed before. One of the few songs not played live in the film is of course Prince's first Number One U.S. single When Doves Cry, played over a notably earnest montage of motorbike-riding, love-making and general all-round Prince-being.
"Don’t let its blockbuster success fool you: this is no bubble-gum movie."
For all the glamour of that song especially, it is easy to forget the rawer, grittier aspects of the film. While it's the songs that understandably remain what we remember the most about Purple Rain, in relation to the fraught relations within his family in particular, the film verges at moments almost on kitchen-sink realism. The Kid’s home life is riddled with what The Kid fears are irresolvable cycles of physical, emotional and verbal abuse, and our hero desperately seeks to use music as a way out, hoping to keep at bay unspoken but always present anxieties that these behaviours are in all of us: that, as the lyrics to When Doves Cry make clear, “maybe you’re just like my father” or “maybe you’re just like my mother”.
While it’s the bubblier aspects of Purple Rain that remain its strongest pop-cultural reference points, what remains striking when revisiting the film – as so many of us did when Prince unexpectedly passed away in April 2016 – is just how aggressively it delves into these darker aspects. While at points verging unapologetically on melodrama, these bleaker elements of Purple Rain align it with the turn in American musicals throughout the 1970s to tones and themes thoroughly out of whack with the perky razzle-dazzle we might usually associate with the film musical. Don’t let its blockbuster success fool you: this is no bubble-gum movie, and Purple Rain finds its heritage as much in the emotional brutality of Michael Gore's Fame and Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz as it does the soft-focus glitz of Grease or Xanadu.
Ultimately, it’s these very contrasts that grant Purple Rain (and Prince’s music more generally) its magic. The Kid learns that life is a constant tension between shadow and light, and the only way to survive is through the support of other people. In Purple Rain, there is no denying that life can be cruel and life can be hard and life can be unfair, but – as he sang to us so many times throughout his extraordinary career – music and love are key to finding a way through. The film is a love letter to collaboration, to passion, and to the power of music: this is Prince’s legacy, brought to life nowhere more memorably than in Purple Rain.
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