[box cover]

Purple Rain: 20th Anniversary Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Prince, Apollonia Kotero, Morris Day,
Olga Karlatos, and Clarence Williams III

Written by Albert Magnoli and William Blinn
Directed by Albert Magnoli

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

Considering the dispiriting creative drought that ravaged every artistic medium in the 1980s, awarding the decade musically to pop-rock-funk alchemist Prince Rogers Nelson is inescapably dubious, diminishing a sustained level of brilliance which rivaled the historic runs of The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, and Bob Dylan. If the best this declaration can accomplish is to remind a public given to lazy and forgiving remembrances of the period that His Royal Badness's contributions to the popular music canon far outstripped those offered up by the self-monikered "King of Pop" Michael Jackson, who, over ten years, managed but one LP of genuine quality, Thriller (with the indispensable assistance of Quincy Jones), it's best then to bellow it out, repair the historical record, and move on to paying the man a compliment that actually means something:

Prince made the '80s endurable. No small feat, that.

Still, Prince's most impressive achievement might be that his music, despite its cleaned-up production and reliance on early synthesizers characteristic of the time, has, with a few isolated exceptions ("Ronnie, Talk to Russia" anyone?), held up. From "When You Were Mine" off of 1980's Dirty Mind to the one-track mélange of Lovesexy, it's all too inventive, too joyous, and just too damn funky to ever be in danger of losing its vitality. And these are just the marginal, but still notable, bookends. In between these merely great albums, Prince, over the tighter span of four years, dropped three inarguable masterpieces like it was nothing. That he accomplished this while the country was in the grip of a soul-enervating, consumer-driven complacency is all the more astonishing. Sliding these three pieces under the same electron microscope used to distinguish the complex, unreproducible atomic structure of, say, Rubber Soul from Revolver, one finally emerges with the finer assessment that if 1999 is the ultimate party record and Sign o' the Times is the connoisseur's socially conscious choice, then Purple Rain, flawless and majestic at only nine songs, must be the soaring apex of Prince's soul-stirring climb to artistic immortality.

Informing and, to an extent, complicating that LP's greatness, however, is the 1984 film for which it was generated and from which it is virtually inseparable for those that lived through its massive, MTV-abetted media assault. After all, it's impossible to cue up I Would Die 4 U and not see a smilingly worshipful Apollonia hand-signing the chorus from the audience, or to hear the title track and suppress the temptation to dreamily wave one's arm through the air. More important than these associations, though, is that the album's iconic first single, "When Doves Cry," owes its existence to the unfailingly tricky negotiation of the post-production process, while the composition of "Take Me With U" was Prince's response to viewing the footage of his motorcycle ride through the hilly outskirts of Minneapolis.

And all of this is difficult to comprehend because the film Purple Rain, devoid of its concert scenes, is a less-than-brilliant iteration of the tortured artist melodrama that evades ridicule due only to its searing, autobiographical nature.

In the movie, Prince plays "The Kid," the young frontman of and driving artistic force behind a struggling pop outfit called "The Revolution." Though boundlessly talented and emotionally fragile to a strikingly feminine degree, he's also a selfish lout given to misogynist flourishes undoubtedly influenced by his mentally disintegrating father (an excellent Clarence Williams III), whose creative frustration manifests itself in the frequent physical abuse of his long-suffering wife (Olga Karlatos). The Kid's sour disposition is further exacerbated by a music club rivalry (at the legendary First Avenue in Minneapolis) ignited by the establishment manager's need to whittle down his regular lineup, which pits The Revolution against the swaggering Morris Day and The Time and a girl group to be conceived later. Though potentially the greatest of these bands, The Revolution toils forever under the threat of dissolution as a result of The Kid's mercurial behavior and his cohorts' growing resentment of it. Particularly fed up with his childishness are the songwriting duo of Wendy and Lisa, who've seen their composition of a lilting ballad rewarded with obdurate indifference.

The Kid's lackadaisical cruelty extends to his love life, finding a semi-willing target in the sexy Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), a newcomer to the Minneapolis scene intoxicated with clichéd notions of instant stardom. In other words, she's a less-than-honorable naïf (her initial indifference to Prince shredding through "Let's Go Crazy" when she first enters First Avenue immediately engenders viewer resentment), but such vacuousness by no means validates or excuses The Kid's churlish mistreatment of her (even if it's her idea to strip down to her panties when tricked into diving into a freezing lake as a nonsense rite of initiation). Still, her (literally) naked craving for success does set her up for all manner of mistreatment, and while it's The Kid who unforgivably takes it to the physical extreme (more to come on that), he at least appears to harbor a tiny bit of genuine affection for her, thus placing him ever so slightly above the manipulative Day, who becomes her svengali, on the film's compromised moral scale.

*          *          *

As Purple Rain builds to its inevitable onstage triumph, interest is maintained solely by virtue of its blessedly numerous musical performances. Employing the multiple-camera setup that served Martin Scorsese so well with The Last Waltz, Albert Magnoli captures Prince scorching the First Avenue stage at his high-energy peak. Few films have ever opened with the ineffable exhilaration excited by Prince's vulgar sermon, "Let's Go Crazy," while there has never been a more searing and anguished musical ultimatum of love than that delivered via "The Beautiful Ones." Meanwhile, the intensity of The Revolution's performances is offset lightly by The Time's jaunty run-throughs of "Jungle Love" and "The Bird". Even Apollonia 6's lascivious and objectifying "Sex Shooter" finds value as an arousing reminder of what's at stake for The Kid (even though it's all strictly a below-the-belt point of pride).

If the family drama which dominates the narrative following the onstage collapse of "Darling Nikki" (and Magnoli manages a huge triumph here by convincing the viewer that such an incendiary, galvanizing performance would somehow be viewed as a disaster by a bottom-line-obsessed club owner) is trite in its construction, it's at least partially redeemed by two moments of earned sentiment: The Kid discovering his father's sheet music for a composition (credited in real life to Prince's father, John L. Nelson) that is subsequently incorporated as the bridge to "Computer Blue," and a heart-to-heart concluding with a father's chilling exhortation to his son, "Never get married." The latter is acutely resonant considering the erratic quality of Prince's work following his since-ended marriage to Mayte in the 1990s, which, sadly, has plenty of echoes in the creative lives of his peers.

The film eventually rebounds with its extended finale, beginning with the redemptive premiere of the title track (prefaced by The Kid acknowledging Wendy and Lisa as its originators), and concluding in smashing fashion to the uplifting one-two combination of "I Would Die 4 U" and "Baby, I'm a Star." While effort is made, in montage, to suggest that The Kid and Apollonia are now engaged in a warm, mutually respectful relationship, it doesn't hold much water. Thankfully, Magnoli is chiefly concerned with sending the audience out on a high, which is impossible to bungle so long as the cameras are locked-in on a rollicking, rocking-out Prince, who's never more at home, more articulate, or more admirable than when he's onstage. Suddenly, the unpleasantness of the stilted drama that padded out the now-finished narrative is overwhelmingly drowned out by the rare enjoyment of watching a popular musician perform at the absolute peak of his craft.

Objective discrimination prohibits declaring Purple Rain as a truly great film, but the trick to embracing it as a legitimately essential work in spite of its many flaws is to resist categorizing it as a love story and, rather, view it as an honest, if ugly, confessional for the tortured creative temperament. Though antithetical to their enjoyment, it would be dishonest to think that any great work of artistic transcendence has ever been completed without a journey through one's darkest thoughts and feelings. Psychologically, it's a perilous expedition, with the epiphanies arriving at a horrible, rationally unacceptable human price. Viewing Prince at his worst through his performance as The Kid might be too much for some (indeed, who really wants listen to "A Change is Gonna Come," one of the most inspiring soul songs ever written, with a fresh image of Sam Cooke being shot dead at a sleazy Los Angeles motel while trying to rape a 22-year-old prostitute?). But there's something noble in the artist's preference for fearless self-portraiture over shameless self-hagiography. Compared to Michael Jackson's many confused attempts to transform himself into a superhero (e.g. "Captain EO" and "Moonwalker," and, by the way, let's not make too much out of his "Thriller" zombification), so frightfully in tune with Reagan America's own insecure need to prop up scoundrels and oddballs like Oliver North or John Rambo as role models, it's just another reason to be grateful that Prince existed in the 1980s. Honesty and genius were in treacherously short supply, and no one addressed that void more palpably than Prince.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video is at last atoning for their initial Purple Rain release by presenting it in a well-above-average anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) that does what it can for a film that was never a triumph of cinematography. Most important, of course, is the audio, which is a fine Dolby Digital 5.1 recreation of the original stereo track, which is to say it sounds almost exactly like it did in the theaters back in 1984. For those with vivid memories of that summer, this is a very welcome thing.

Compared to some of Warner's other recent two-disc Special Editions, this effort isn't exactly overflowing with extras, but what's here is generally worthwhile. The feature-length commentary track on Disc One from Magnoli, producer Robert Cavallo, and director of photography Donald E. Thorin is actually the least interesting inclusion, with insights tending toward near-imbecility, like a specious defense of the infamous scene in which Jerome and Morris toss an angry ex-girlfriend in a dumpster. ("Hey, the audience laughed" is their anemic justification. People laughed at Soul Man, too.) Disc Two is where it's at, with "Purple Rain: Backstage Pass" (30 min.) boasting thoughtful and often touching remembrances from folks like Wendy and Lisa, and even Magnoli, who tears up when recalling the aforementioned scene between Prince and Clarence Williams. Also of interest is "First Avenue: The Road to Pop Royalty" (12 min.), which gives a brief background on the influential Minneapolis music scene of the '70s and '80s. "Riffs, Ruffles and a Revolution" (10 min.) is an enthusiastic tribute to Prince's legendary versatility, but the set's crown jewel is the "MTV Premiere Party" (28 min.), which finds old school VJ Mark Goodman hanging out at the erstwhile Hollywood hotspot The Palace (now The Avalon), ineptly conducting interviews with, among others, an annoyed Eddie Murphy, Little Richard in full-on Jesus Freak mode, and Lionel Richie. It should be noted that the late Rick James is also in attendance, which, given Charlie Murphy's presence, should quicken the pulses of "Chappelle Show" fans. Finally, there are eight music videos from the film, including a rarely seen one for "Sex Shooter" that may be the worst thing ever aired on MTV.

— Clarence Beaks

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