A decade ago MTV was just beginning, primarily serving as a promotional tool for record companies—24 hours a day American youth could tune in MTV to watch and re-watch top 40 music videos. Such was the case in 1984 when Purple Rain was released into theaters. To a generation of youth that had been dazzled by countless repetitions of the same music videos, this feature length film offered a new concept to rock music obsessed teens—it would have to be really horrible to fail.
Instead, Purple Rain succeeded in attracting the budding MTV generation into theaters for what amounts to little more than an extended play music video, complete with a hack script designed to appeal to junior high students. Its saving grace rests with the music, a few numbers good enough to stand the test of time and continue to make Prince's concert set list.
The loosely constructed story was designed to create a possible autobiographical background for the mysterious Prince—it's primarily set in a music club in his Minneapolis hometown, and the characters all have less depth and emotional range than Warner Brothers Looney Tunes. Prince plays "the Kid," only son of an outrageously dysfunctional set of parents (Clarence Williams III and Olga Karlatos), who spend their time either fighting or loving. The film draws an embarrassingly simplistic parallel between the Kid and his father since both are musicians and the Kid finds himself slapping his girlfriend Apollonia as soon as frustrations arise—if we don't get it, one of the songs literally clubs us over the head with lyrics and choreographed video.
The Kid is tremendously talented but very self-centered. Prince's real band, the Revolution—Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Bobby Z., Matt Trask, and Brown Mark—all play themselves. Wendy and Lisa have written a song, but the egotistical Kid won't consider anything he hasn't written himself, although he secretly plays the opening riff of their cassette tape a number of times alone at home.
There's trouble brewing at the Club, however. The Kid and the Revolution aren't mainstream enough to continue packing them in, and rival Morris Day and his group the Time want to muscle him out with a girl group. Day sees his chance with sexy newcomer Apollonia, so the rivalry warms up both professionally and personally. This 1984 Simon Legree clone clumsily plans to destroy the Kid's chances for making it in the music business and steal his girl.
The melodrama proceeds predictably, allowing us to even silently hiss the evil Day when he pointedly asks the Kid about his family at the most inopportune time. Will the Kid redeem himself and remove his head from his anal aperture in time? We already know the answer; naturally, it takes a personal tragedy to shake him loose from his selfishness and play the title song, whose opening riff we've heard three or four times before the ending battle of the bands sequence that will leave the crowd tearfully swaying and cheering.
Were it not for some excellent music, this film would be a complete waste of time. Prince does have screen presence but can't act a lick when the music's not playing, and the other musicians act no better than extras that could be dragged from any Denny's restaurant in Hollywood.
The script isn't much better. The only effective parts occur during the music'the verbal interludes awkwardly clunk the music bits together like first graders putting together a family scrapbook. Especially amateurish is a comedy bit—with Morris and his assistant that rips off the old Abbot and Costello "Who's on First" vaudeville routine. Writer/director Albert Magnoli further establishes his ineptness with future projects that are even more lackluster—using Olympic gymnast Mitch Gaylord in American Anthem and then directing Sylvester Stallone in the horrid Tango & Cash. Hopefully these disasters have convinced Hollywood producers not to take another chance on Magnoli. His box office success with Purple Rain was only due to the Prince phenomena and a budding MTV generation love affair with music videos.
The songs save the film from being suitable only for the dumpster. Morris Day's band The Time sings and dances their pop hits "Jungle Love" and "The Bird" competently, but they are virtually forgotten today. It's Prince's music that stands the test of time in his best movie (don't bother with Under the Cherry Moon and Grafitti Bridge), so Prince fans will rate this film far higher than the average viewer. Musical highlights include "Let's Go Crazy," "The Beautiful Ones," "Baby I'm a Star," and the title song " Purple Rain."
A failure as a film, it would rate a single star, but considering the strength of Prince's music, Purple Rain is worth a rental for the curious and is a keeper for his fans to play over and over. Isn't that what you do with music videos?