In 1984, it might have seemed as though Prince Rogers Nelson had magically appeared as a fully formed rock star. He had a band, a number of proteges, a list of killer singles, and a starring role in a movie all at once. To much of America, and much of the world, it was an overnight success: one day, this tiny Minnesota-based funky-pop guitar hero was unknown, and the next, he was an inescapable fixture of pop culture.
Of course, the reality is more complicated. By 1984, Prince had released five studio albums, including the highly acclaimed 1999 two years prior. He had painstakingly assembled The Revolution and was writing songs with such tenacity that he personally formed offshoot bands like The Time, The Family, and Vanity 6 just to get all of his material out. He had toured incessantly throughout the US and built up a diverse audience out of funk, synthpop, and rock fans. Warner Bros Records was so impressed by the work ethic that they agreed to his demands to produce a major motion picture starring him, his band, and his proteges.
Every element of Purple Rain was produced with modest expectations. Prince had no acting resume, so the film focused on a loosely autobiographical depiction of him. Frequent performance scenes were included, and The Kid is portrayed as a steely, silent type. Besides The Kid’s parents, every other character portrays themselves to some degree. The budget was kept low, and scenes were filmed in Prince’s hometown of Minneapolis at venues like First Avenue that he was already familiar with. All of this was done to mitigate what could have easily turned into a disaster.
But instead of a hot mess, Purple Rain is an unlikely triumph, holding its own as a cinematic classic of the ’80s. The film holds up remarkably well, considering the three leading roles are occupied by non-actors. Prince keeps his acting to a minimum as The Kid, mostly just being Prince. Apollonia Kotero does her job well as Prince’s protege, giving a convincing believability as to why everyone in the film is falling all over her. Morris Day is basically a cartoon character, but his absurd heel turn is easily the most entertaining part of the film outside of the concert sequences.
To be fair, there are plenty of aspects to the film that hasn’t held up. Everyone seems weirdly OK with treating Apollonia like dirt, and the physical abuse that a number of female characters suffer is surprising upon rewatch, from the comical tossing of a girlfriend into the garbage to the intensely uncomfortable way The Kid “playfully” initiates Apollonia. The film treats domestic abuse in a hamfisted way, and dialogue coming from pretty much every character not named Morris Day is clunky and filled with cliche. There’s a section where Billy, the First Avenue club owner, tells The Kid that his music doesn’t make sense and caps it with “like father, like son.” The obviousness that the script embraces is more painful than it is passable.
The Kid is pretty much an ass to everybody, from his bandmates to his love interests to his bosses, and the film doesn’t quite do enough to render him as a “tortured artist” or a byproduct of his abusive upbringing to justify this. Still, the redemptive arc of his gradual acknowledgement of those around him is one of the more surprising narrative elements of the film. Even when he has no right to be, The Kid remains sympathetic, probably because we all want Prince to get back on stage to turn that turmoil into pure performance art.
Unsurprisingly, the greatest parts of the film remain the live concert sequences. Every song performed by The Revolution and The Time is a vibrant, exciting plot point onto itself, pushing the film forward in a way that the traditional “acting” scenes rarely do. It’s still cheesy, but now it’s glorious cheese, the kind that tastes so good and remains eminently rewatchable. The opening performance of ‘Let’s Go Crazy’, The Time’s subsequent retort of ‘Jungle Love’, the gonzo sexuality of ‘Darling Nikki’, the exuberant ridiculousness of ‘The Bird’ and the cathartic finale of ‘Purple Rain’ remain incredible illustrations of an artist at his commercial and creative peak.
Nobody was going to win an Oscar for Purple Rain. Winning Oscars wasn’t the point. The point was to show that Minneapolis was now the centre of the pop music universe, and it all revolved around one man. The excitement, entertainment, and occasional lunacy of Purple Rain all work in its favour, and the film ultimately accomplished its single goal – make Prince a superstar. Rewatching it now only serves to solidify the notion that Prince was always meant to be a superstar.