Purple Rain: 20th Edition DVD
Warner Home Video
Reviewed by Tony Buchsbaum
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, there was the artist known as Prince. He was a maverick, a purple-clad purveyor of perfectly primed pop that pushed lots of buttons and challenged the outer edges of more than a few cultural envelopes.
Prince was a product of the Minneapolis music scene, in which an artist could set himself apart with a good groove and a healthy dose of experimentation. Prince, of course, was a groove master and more-than-willing participant in artistic experimentation.
The result was an early career that caught the ear of the public -- and the eye of Hollywood. And soon enough, there came the inevitable movie.
Albert Magnoli, Purple Rain's beginner director, somehow pulled off a film that had a lot of cards stacked against it. Shrewdly, he cast actors who could hold their own musically against the Prince whirlwind. He even found a girl to play the pivotal role of, well, The Girl; she would have to have musical talent, acting talent, and be willing to shed a few threads. Appollonia Kotero fit the bill nicely, not to mention her character's black bustier.
When it was released in 1984, Purple Rain was a sensation. If Prince wasn't a star before the movie, the film most certainly made him one.
Based, from all accounts, on major portions of Prince's own life, Purple Rain traces the artistic rise and familial conflicts of a local Minneapolis pop star. As his music and performances get edgier, grittier -- in part to create an on-stage personality, in part to set himself apart from competing band The Time -- so does his home life, in which his father and mother go at each other with what might be called loving abandon, much of it fueled by the father's own frustrated musical aspirations. Building the father, Mod Squad actor Clarence Williams III stands out as he paints a sad, searing portrait of a man who's lost control of himself.
Though the script suffers from awkward dialogue, it does have its power, even if much of that power lies in the expertly photographed performance sequences, in which Prince's real and lasting gift shines through. Apart from maybe the concert sequences in the Madonna documentary Truth or Dare, I can't recall concert footage that packs such an emotional wallop. Prince sings, dances, wails and makes lewd suggestions in his unique way, and the music and the color and the energy jump out at the audience.
One critical factor in these sequences is that the audience isn't left out. Often, shots are low-angle, with fans' hands raised and swaying or snapping or clapping in tribute. This one element brings these sections an almost-tangible immediacy and a new level of excitement.
The Revolution, as Prince's band is called in the film, is set against the competing band The Time, with its principal performer Morris Day. With wide-eyed, gold-lamé funkiness, Day and his band offer sugary confections that sharply contrast The Revolution's emotion-based dancefests. Even Prince's searing "The Beautiful Ones," while a ballad, has an edge defined throughout by the artist's emotional anchor and his primal screaming at its climax. And when it comes, the title song's raw power allows the film to soar above its admittedly humble origins to the pantheon of rock classics.
Prince's songs -- a small fraction of the pieces he actually composed for the film -- are brilliant. "Let's Go Crazy," "When Doves Cry," "Darling Nikki," "Purple Rain," "I Would Die 4 U," and "Baby I'm a Star" are almost anthems now, and they were then, too.
The new 20th anniversary DVD provides the film -- at last -- in widescreen format, and the two-disc set includes a commentary by the director, producer and cinematographer, as well as terrific documentaries about the Minneapolis music scene, the making of the movie, and the movie's impact on pop culture. The only bummer: Prince, who has been feuding with Warner Bros. for years now, did not participate in the DVD production -- and his presence is missed.
Purple Rain is one of those films that goes a long way to defining its generation. Though marred by a sometimes simplistic script, it remains a stellar piece of entertainment and a lasting testament to the often jaw-dropping talent of the artist who will forever be known as Prince. | January 2005
Tony Buchsbaum is the author of Total Eclipse. He writes advertising for a large marketing firm and is building a small book publishing company in Lawrenceville, NJ, where he lives with his wife and sons.
Purple Rain is one of those films that goes a long way to defining its generation. Though marred by a sometimes simplistic script, it remains a stellar piece of entertainment and a lasting testament to the often jaw-dropping talent of the artist who will forever be known as Prince.