The Musical Magic of Purple Rain

Movies and music can have a powerful connection. Just think of all the memorable scores and magical theme songs that movies have given us over the decades. Hollywood has long sought to capitalize on this power by putting pop stars up on the silver screen. Sometimes the singers merely act; other times, they act in movies where they are also required to sing. This has been done to varying degrees of success. Elvis Presley made a lot of movies that aren’t very good, but which hold cult appeal for his fans. Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees utterly embarrassed themselves in Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Olivia Newton-John hit the bullseye with Grease, but tanked with Xanadu. Whitney Houston scored with The Bodyguard. There are dozens more examples, good and bad.

Other times, movies are specifically built around the musical performer. This is a lot harder to do, as it requires a complete understanding of what makes that performer special. The Beatles did it successfully with A Hard Day’s Night (although it could be argued that the film is a better reflection of Beatlemania than the band itself), as did Eminem with 8 Mile. Others have not been so lucky. Just ask Rick Springfield (Hard to Hold), Kelly Clarkson (From Justin to Kelly) and the Spice Girls (Spice World).

Perhaps the best example of a movie built around a pop singer came in 1984. Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain was released on July 27 of that year, and it made Prince – who was already a star – a bona-fide phenomenon.

Prince was an unlikely subject for a motion picture. He was a mercurial presence, reluctant to do interviews or reveal much about himself personally. He let his music do the talking for him. In spite of these hurdles, Magnoli and co-writer William Blinn managed to find a way to make it work, in part by embracing the very things that would seem to be obstacles.

Purple Rain is the story of a prodigiously talented, yet deeply troubled Minneapolis musician known as “The Kid.” He electrifies audiences at a local club with his catchy songs and energetic stage presence. Members of his backup band, The Revolution, resent his refusal to share the spotlight. Two of them, Wendy (Wendy Melvoin) and Lisa (Lisa Coleman), have written a song for the band to perform, but The Kid continually rejects it. Some of his thorny personality issues stem from a troubled home life; his father is physically abusive, his mother emotionally so. The Kid finds the impetus to change a little bit after falling for Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), the voluptuous aspiring singer he tricks into stripping naked and jumping in a lake.

Magnoli wisely crafted Purple Rain to let Prince essentially be himself. It was filmed in the singer’s home town of Minneapolis, at the real clubs where he often performed. His real band plays his movie band. Apollonia Kotero was a real-life protégé and love interest. Morris Day and the Time, who appear as a rival band and its leader, were also part of Prince’s inner circle.

Aside from surrounding Prince with familiar, comfortable elements, the film crafts his character to stay true to his own personality. Fittingly, The Kid doesn’t speak much. When he has something important to say, he generally does it through song. Purple Rain never has any scenes in which he stops and talks in depth about how he feels. He simply jumps onstage and performs a song that suits his mood. For instance, in one scene, he’s upset at Apollonia for joining a girl group managed by his rival. His response is to slap her, and then to sing the vulgar tune “Darling Nikki” in a packed club, while staring right at her. Rather than engaging in a therapeutic discussion of the impact his dysfunctional parents are having on him, The Kid sings “When Doves Cry,” which is about that exact subject. And instead of ever formally apologizing to Wendy and Lisa, he leads the Revolution in an impromptu performance of their song, which he has morphed into the movie’s stunning title tune.

Purple Rain‘s use of songs to propel the plot and explain the character’s inner motivation is its greatest strength. The approach wisely doesn’t force Prince to do much acting-with-a-capital-A, and it also allows for regular musical numbers. This is important, because Prince has always been more than just a great live performer. He becomes almost possessed by the music onstage, radiating a magnetism that is nothing short of hypnotic. Purple Rain opens with a seven-minute rendition of “Let’s Go Crazy” that sets the tone for what’s to come, then proceeds to shape the plot so that it fits the songs, rather than the other way around. The last fifteen minutes are nothing but performance scenes: the show-stopping “Purple Rain” number, followed by The Kid’s cathartic double-feature of “I Would Die 4 U” (to let Apollonia know that he’s prepared to be a better boyfriend) and “Baby, I’m a Star” (to everyone know he’s ready for his music to conquer the world).

Albert Magnoli used Purple Rain as a showcase for Prince’s onstage charisma, knowing that it would more than compensate for a thin story. That makes it a true “music movie.” It’s tough to portray the inner creativity of an artist on film. By moving the songs front and center – and allowing them to be the main character’s primary voice – Purple Rain accomplishes this task very effectively. Through the use of you-are-there cinematography and dramatic, often purple stage lighting, Magnoli captures the meaning of every song The Kid belts out, while Prince performs them with full passion. This is a movie full of perfect shots.

Emboldened by the film’s box office success ($68 million in the U.S.), Prince went on to make two more fictional films, Under the Cherry Moon and a Purple Rain sequel called Graffiti Bridge, both of which he directed. But Prince didn’t understand his own appeal as well as Magnoli did – at least not cinematically. Both movies were huge critical and commercial flops.

Even so, Prince will always have Purple Rain. While some elements of it are dated, the movie still retains its impact as an in-depth examination of how a performer expresses himself through his music. It contains the best songs Prince ever wrote, and instead of truncating the concert scenes, the movie wisely indulges in them to the fullest, most satisfying extent possible.

Purple Rain is the Prince-iest Prince movie a fan could ever wish for, as well as a prime example of how to tailor a singer’s unique magic to the requirements of cinema.

Copyright 2015 Mike McGranaghan