|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Wednesday, 25 June 1997|
In some ways, "Purple Rain" is an emblem of its time. In 1984, MTV was still virtually a toddler of a cable network, albeit a very influential one, and narrative movies sought to emulate the feel of music videos in much more literal ways than is the norm these days. The main characters are all rockers whose lives are scored by their songs, even when they’re not up on stage showing off their chops ("The Cell," for a contrasting example, has a music video’s surreal imagery, pacing and lighting, but the characters aren’t going to leap in front of an audience and begin belting out a number.)
Directed by Albert Magnoli, written by Magnoli and William Blinn and, most crucially, starring Prince, "Purple Rain" pauses for naturalistic spoken dialogue in places, but at its heart, it is a mega-video, here to move us more by power of music and performance than through traditional filmic storytelling. The songs are strung together so closely that there isn’t a great deal of time for anything else – but when the music is this good, that’s enough.
Prince (before his "formerly/again known as" period) plays the Kid. Apart from the Kid and his parents (Clarence Williams III and Olga Karlatos), all of the characters bear the same name as the performers who play them. This, coupled with Prince’s hometown Minneapolis setting and hints in the film’s initial publicity, suggests we are meant to speculate on how much of "Purple Rain" is fictional and how much is the rocker’s veiled autobiography. Whatever the truth is, the plot, presented in flashes around the music, gives us a portrait of a talented but spectacularly selfish artist on the rise who must undergo romantic frustration, professional embarrassment and familial tragedy before learning to rise above his inconsiderate and self-destructive traits.
When we first meet the Kid, he and his band – played by Prince’s then real-life touring back-up group the Revolution, consisting of Wendy Melvoin, Lisa Coleman, Bobby Z., Matt Trask and Brown Mark – are one of three featured groups at a popular urban club. Morris Day, the Kid’s chief rival, is trying to persuade the club’s owner to oust the Kid. Newcomer to town Apollonia wants a singing career. Morris offers to help the gorgeous lady, but Apollonia would rather be with the Kid – but his refusal to help her and his sudden displays of physical violence send her running. The Kid’s flip dismissal of Wendy and Lisa’s songwriting abilities likewise have his group on the edge of tense break-up. These unpleasant traits have their roots in the Kid’s home life – still living with his parents, the Kid’s regularly comes home at night to get caught in the crossfire as his alcoholic failed-musician father beats and brutalizes his mother. Is the Kid ever going to pull out of this cycle and make some changes in his act, figuratively and literally?
From his Chapter 1 musical invitation "Let’s Go Crazy" to the three-song ("Purple Rain," "I Would Die 4 U," "Baby I’m a Star") mini-concert that concludes the film in Chapters 25-27, Prince displays the appealing, dynamic persona required to galvanize an audience for nearly two hours. His onstage narcissism is playfully self-mocking here – he really does think he’s pretty fine, but he also understands that there’s something inherently amusing in being this taken with himself. His non-musical emoting is effectively understated, with backstage vulnerability replacing performer’s bravado. Day almost steals the show from the star in places, showing such bright comedic timing that it’s surprising he hasn’t had a more extensive acting career.
Most of the performances are kinetic . "Purple Rain" opens with the great one-two punch of Prince and the Revolution’s prancing "Let’s Go Crazy," followed immediately by Chapter 2’s showcase of Morris Day and the Time’s preening, ultra-lively "Jungle Love." Chapter 16 has a propulsive rendition of "When Doves Cry" – the filmmakers try a little too hard to add urgency to the sex scenes, but the sequence still has punch. Chapter 17, in one of the DVD’s best sound reproductions, has a lovely acoustic piano theme, while showcasing a powerful performance from Williams as the Kid’s tortured father. Chapter 23 has a good directional sound effect, with footsteps on stairs realistic in the right main. The climactic songs are engaging on a performance level, especially in Chapter 27’s "Baby I’m a Star," when Prince finally loosens up and acknowledges attitudinally that he’s having a great time up there under the lights.
Here is where it would be nice to report that watching the performances on the DVD is much better than listening to the soundtrack. Depending on how your system reads the disc, this may be the case, but on smaller 5.1 systems – like this reviewer’s – the bass information may swamp the equipment, resulting in buzz. In this instance, however, there’s a case to be made that it may indeed be the fault of the DVD and not the equipment. This is because for any DVD – let alone a cult offering like this one – "Purple Rain" is lackluster in many respects. The aspect ratio is full-screen rather than the original widescreen, so that the sides of the image are cut off. Extras include production notes and the trailer – that’s it, not even a promotional music video, let alone behind-the-scenes footage, interviews and/or an audio commentary.
The most disturbing aspect here, however, is the sound. Visually, the "Purple Rain" DVD is very handsome (aside from the full-screen cropping). Color reproduction is beautiful, with rich reds, deep blues and vibrant purples creating texture under gold lights. Sound is a different story. The packaging says the soundtrack was remastered in 5.1, but with a few notable exceptions (such as Chapter 23), there are few attempts at specific placement in the mix, so that it’s hard to pick and locate individual elements, let alone for the listener to feel as though the performance and the crowd are live and in the room.
"Purple Rain" is enjoyable on its own terms and as a time capsule of the state of the ‘80s rock musical. For Prince fans, it’s a must-have and for rock movie enthusiasts, it’s at least a must-watch. As a DVD, however, let’s hope the definitive release is yet to come – restoring the original aspect ratio would be a good place to start.