The Sound of Musicals: Purple Rain
A musical is reflective of it’s time in history. Not the time the story is told, and even less frequently, not even where the story takes place. It’s a snapshot in a moment of history of music; on the stage, it’s a reflection of the shared memory at that time. On the screen, a musical is often an echo of culture in the periods before it took place. This is, what makes Purple Rain stand out to other movie musicals - from the music, to the fashion and the cinematography, it’s an immediate reflection of the culture at the moment it was made, and its innovator at the heart of the action shaped different parts of the cultural right until the day he died.
You’ve probably spent time with some part of Purple Rain this year. The passing of Prince lead to an outpouring of emotion across the world, from fans who used his art to reflect and learn about themselves, to President Barack Obama, who called Prince a cultural icon and quoted directly from the superstar’s music. It’s unsurprising that a President so in tune with pop cultural as Obama would be able to quote and reflect so directly on Prince’s work, as he was just slightly younger than Prince himself and in his lifetime had undoubtedly used Prince’s music as a backing track in life. Many institutions were able to reflect on Prince’s sudden death, and MTV and VH1 showed remarkable flexibility and abandoned their usual programming to show marathons that alternated between his collected video works and Purple Rain. SNL put together a special combining his best appearances over the years, and included a cast after party performance. The Hamilton cast launched an impromptu performance of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ during their current call, and the NFL replayed his Super Bowl XLI halftime performance on the NFL network, which crescendoed in a stirring rendition of ‘Purple Rain’ amongst a light rain in the dark. This outpouring of tributes showed the enormity of Prince’s contributions across music, media and cultural at large, and most of them come back to his 1984 screen debut.
Purple Rain is semi-autobiographical, reflecting on Prince’s time in the Minneapolis music scene and the competition for fame and stage time. Prince plays The Kid, the talented bandleader and lead singer of The Revolution. They are in competition with Morris Day and his band The Time for the top spot at First Avenue, a club with three house bands, a hub for activity on the scene. Arriving new on the scene is Apollonia, an aspiring singer who catches the eye of the band leaders for different reasons. The Kid wants to be with Apollonia and doesn’t help her in nurturing her career; Morris wants to feature her in his new girl group, while also adding another notch in his belt. The Kid lives with his parents, his father a rough and abusive man who is a former musician and whose turbulent behavior cost The Kid’s mom her performing career. The turbulence of an unstable home life, the insecurity of a new relationship and the threats of losing his position at the club cause The Kid to act neglectful of his band, and a moment of emotion leads to a violent outburst against Apollonia that damages their relationship and draws parallels to The Kid and his father. Seeking to succumb to the violence and teach his father, Francis, a lesson following a violent outburst, The Kid is instead met with the sight of his fathers attempted suicide, and he contemplates avoiding the mistakes of his father. Instead, The Kid finds a secret storage of sheet music from his father, a key similarity his father denied, and turns his energy to fixing his relationship with his band and his audience, and sets forth a course of reconciliation with Apollonia, and most importantly, himself.
It would be easy to dismiss Purple Rain as a vanity project to feature Prince’s music, and there are definite issues with a cast full of non-actors embarking on a dramatic performance. The Kid's paper thin barrier to partner abuse is #problematic, and the treatment of women in general are not a good look viewing it through modern sensibilities. Putting aside some critical quibbles and advising you to consider the seriousness of domestic abuse with your enjoyment of this film, I find Purple Rain to be the perfect musical of the 80’s.
Purple Rain operates outside of the standard method of a musical, avoiding the spontaneous reality-breaking that a performance like Singin In The Rain’s ‘Good Morning’ would feature, in favor of soundtracked performances, always from a stage, that address the mood of the situation in the film. Purple Rain opens with ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, a manifesto for enjoying the moment and setting the mood for The Kid. Morris Day and The Time’s ‘Jungle Love’ delivers a response to The Kid, setting up their rivalry. When The Kid is met with skepticism of his ability to be a top draw at the club, he responds with a raunchy performance, and when his lover walks in the door with his rival, he delivers a blistering tell-all to the crowd. ‘Purple Rain’ acts as the 11 o’clock number, signaling The Kid finding peace and resolution with himself. It echoes classical musicals, but with the unique aesthetic of the 1980’s and music video culture. Prince would win much acclaim for the songs in the film, winning Grammys, Golden Globes and an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score, a defunct category recognizing full soundtracks as opposed to one track.
Because these performances are captured from the stage like a rock concert, Albert Magnoli doesn’t get a lot of credit for his directorial hand. But there are several great sequences away from the stage of note. Two of the featured songs, ‘Take Me With You’ and ‘When Doves Cry’, are played via montages that evoke music videos. There are several tracking shots through the labyrinth backstage of First Avenue, reflecting on the mood of the performer we follow. And there is an impressive series of cuts and camera moves as emergency responders rush to the house following Francis' suicide attempt. These flourishes are as important as the costumes and the music used in creating the world of Purple Rain.
Purple Rain exists outside the canon of traditional movie musicals, but it’s developed the same kind of affection and devotion of more standard musicals like The Wizard of Oz. Unlike many musicals to that point in history, it is full of diversity and people of color, without attempting to be exclusive to an audience, making it still relevant today. It’s dangerous in the way most musicals aren’t, full of sexuality that is still enticing and beautiful. It’s not camp or the comedy of amatuer performers that make it a must-watch, it’s the compellingness of the commitment they give to their performances and their undeniable skill as musicians and performers that you can’t take your eyes away from. And with the exception of the personality at the center of the production, it’s agnostic of season, occasion or event - you don’t need a reason to watch or listen to Purple Rain, you just should be.