By Chaz Lipp
The classic 1984 backstage musical Purple Rain returned to theaters for a limited engagement in the wake of Prince’s death. Huge kudos to AMC Theatres and Carmike Cinemas for providing fans with an opportunity to pay their respects to the late legend. For many who held Prince’s music dear to their heart (myself included), the experience of seeing the artist in his prime offered a much-needed catharsis. Reverent applause greeted the sustained synth chords of “Let’s Go Crazy” that open the film. The audience response grew more boisterous and celebratory as the movie proceeded. Many attendees of the packed AMC screening I attended lingered through the closing credits, clapping and singing along to the medley of classics that comprise the film’s blockbuster soundtrack.
That Oscar-winning song score and the electrifying concert sequences are, of course, the primary reasons Purple Rain has survived as something far more valuable than an ’80s time capsule piece. Prince was breathing rarefied air during this period – each of the nine songs from his soundtrack album is a classic. Director Albert Magnoli captures Prince and the Revolution onstage with such an unforced, unfussy simplicity that the concert scenes feel entirely believable. He lets Prince’s incredible stage presence speak for itself, a presence that grows more scintillating as the film progresses.
Magnoli employs a sort of shorthand storytelling in which the music tells most of the story. The Kid (Prince) lives out his tumultuous life onstage at Minneapolis’ popular First Avenue nightclub. Whether he’s challenging romantic interest Apollonia (Patricia Kotero) to chose between he and rival Morris (Morris Day) during “The Beautiful Ones” or calling her out for perceived slutty behavior with “Darling Nikki,” The Kid constantly raises the ire of club owner Billy (Billy Sparks).
Billy prefers the party vibe delivered by The Time, the funk band led by Morris and his right-hand man Jerome (Jerome Benton). Practically every night at First Avenue is a ‘battle of the bands,’ with The Revolution and The Time constantly engaged in a fierce game of one-upmanship. The balance tips in The Time’s favor when Morris and Jerome put together the girl group Apollonia 6 in an attempt convince Billy to drop Prince from First Avenue’s roster.
Some of the drama feels a bit overheated and little of the conflict is resolved in any conventional manner. Even so, Purple Rain resonates on a deeper dramatic level thanks largely to a haunting performance by Clarence Williams III as The Kid’s abusive father, Francis L. While the music (including The Time’s hits “Jungle Love” and “The Bird”) has aged incredibly well, the film’s strain of misogyny has not. And despite the genuinely effective comic chemistry between Morris Day and Jerome Benton, a handful of minor roles are awkwardly amateurish. Still, such flaws are generally easy to overlook given the circumstances under which the film is being revisited.
In short, Purple Rain preserves a youthful Prince at the absolute top of his game. The triumphant closing trilogy of the title track, “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Baby I’m a Star” now carries a level of poignancy previously unimagined.
If Prince means something to you – or if you’re not already a fan and want to find out what you’ve been missing out on – don’t miss the chance to see one of the greatest rock movies of all time.