Thursday, 14 June 2012

Purple Rain (1984)

Dir. Albert Magnoli
Starring: Prince, Apollonia Kotero, Morris Day, Clarence Williams III

I was dreaming when I wrote this so forgive me if it goes astray…

Actually, forgive me for using that quote. It is, of course, the opening line from Prince’s hit 1999. 1999 is one of the songs that doesn’t appear in his first feature-film, Purple Rain.  

The film focuses on musician The Kid (played by the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince and who shall, hereafter, be referred to as ‘Prince’). The Kid dresses up like the bastard offspring of Adam Ant and the Cat from Red Dwarf (much like Prince). He plays with a group called The Revolution (whose members are played by the members of Prince’s own band, The Revolution) at the First Avenue club in Minneapolis (where Prince and The Revolution got their first big break). They perform blistering live sets, full of virtuoso rock jams and The Kid’s trademark gymnastic dance routines. But their star is on the wane. They don’t pull in the crowds they once did, The Kid is difficult to work with, his music is self-indulgent, and there are tensions within the band as he dictates what they do and play.

There are others waiting to take advantage of his momentary weakness. Morris (Morris Day) is leader of the rival band The Time, who perform wildly hubristic funk-pop at the same venue. He figures that if he can put together a girl group, one that’s sexy but classy, they can supplant The Kid on the club bill.

Into this clash of egos walks beautiful singer Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero). Everyone wants her – including The Kid. But Morris sees her as the missing piece for his girl group. This group becomes Apollonia 6 (despite there being only three members); the sexy but classy element is the three girls wiggling on stage in nowt but stripperific lingerie singing about a Sex Shooter. Meanwhile The Kid starts to recognise that his gift for music and his controlling nature both come from his tyrannical wife-beating father (Clarence Williams III). “Maybe I’m just too demanding / Maybe I’m just like my father – too bold” as the words of When Doves Cry go. With one last shot to ensure he doesn’t fade away he has search through his own internal conflicts to see if he can use the good from his background without becoming a slave to the bad. This means opening himself to the influences of his father’s music and the input from other band members.

Or something. I think. Frankly the script is a mess. And the acting doesn’t help much either. Prince is by no means the first musician-turned-actor we have come across – think of Elvis Presley in Blue Hawaii or Eminem in 8 Mile. But he is the worst. And the ensemble cast are stilted and flat in their delivery too. Clarence Williams manages to inject some depth into his performance as The Kid’s father in the one real scene he is given, but otherwise the only convincing and entertaining acting performances come from the preening Morris Day and his comedic foil of a valet Jerome (Jerome Benton). Now something has to be wrong when I’m enjoying the villain of the piece more than the hero. Prince / The Kid does come alive on stage, ripping through fantastic ‘live’ numbers such as Let’s Go Crazy, Darling Nikki, I Would Die 4 U and his triumphant resurrection with the title track Purple Rain (When Doves Cry  also appears on the soundtrack). It opens with Let’s Go Crazy and I immediately loved it – I thought I had stumbled upon a spectacular ‘80s cult classic. But off-stage he is a deeply unpleasant – weird even – character. His method of seducing girls is to take them out to the country on his big purple motorbike, get them to strip and jump into a lake, and then to drive away without them. He refuses to listen to a track Wendy and Lisa from his own band have been working on, staring in silence at them when they complain, and then holding a conversation with a monkey toy. Psychological trauma ahoy! 

Prince: one funky monkey

So, script bad, acting bad. The cinematography is actually pretty decent – as long as it sticks to the night. Night-time Minneapolis is a city of rain-slicked streets, dark alleyways and glowing neon, and its denizens look like New Romantic cyberpunk droogs with wildly-styled hair, face paint, skintight leather trousers and flouncy lace blouses (and that’s just the men). It looks like a wonderful companion piece to Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. The harsh light of day melts away the urban flash style however, making everything look shallow and flat. There is one glaring moment when his father goes on the rampage where the visual quality changes completely. I assumed this was meant to be a flashback or The Kid imagining himself in his father’s place… but actually it was just because the final print of this scene got lost so they substituted a test shot instead. How cheap! The entire thing just needs a bit more care and attention paid to it. There’s no shortage of prep for the live musical numbers, so how come the rest of the film feels so much like an afterthought? 

I’m sure Purple Rain is a cult classic. I can imagine it in its proper place – projected onto the back wall of an indie bar with the sound turned off. And it did make me want to see Prince perform live. But ultimately the movie is pretty lame.

What have I learnt about Minnesota?
Minnesota isn’t all snowfields and lakes. It has a gritty futuristic (well, futuristic for the early ‘80s anyway) city scene too, one that produces innovative and ground-breaking music. The First Avenue venue is so famous for breaking new stars that a young woman like Apollonia is willing to get the Greyhound bus all the way from New Orleans to Minneapolis for her chance to make it big.

But there are lakes too. The Kid tells her that she must purify herself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka if she wants to make it big.

Can we go there?
The big star has to be the First Avenue & 7th Street Entry Club. The nightspot made famous by Prince (and which had itself made him famous) still exists and still hosts live music. The Hard Rock CafĂ© across the street did have a Prince exhibition upstairs, but it closed down in September last year. ‘The Taste’, where Apollonia 6 debut was actually the Union Bar. The rest of the film was shot on location in Minneapolis. Except for Apollonia’s hotel. You know, the Huntington Hotel, the one across the road from the club? Yeah, well it’s nowhere near First Avenue Minneapolis in real life: it is located at 752 S Main Street, Los Angeles.

Overall Rating: 2/5

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