Has there ever been a truly great movie starring musicians? OK, OK, A Hard Day’s Night. What I meant is, is there any film starring a musician who is required to act and give a good performance? Wait, what’s that? The Man Who Fell to Earth? Alright, let me rephrase the question…is there a movie in which the musician is required to give a good performance but also effectively showcase his music and create a tight narrative that can stand alone without the story? Wait, now you are saying 8 Mile?
I give up. So many will forgive Prince here because the music is incredible and they will take the same sort of logic that I tried to apply in the previous paragraph. Let me restate that former fact: the music in the film is some of the best ever recorded, and the soundtrack album may be the best album of the 1980s. I am not here to review the album. I am here to review the film. And as a film, Purple Rain is sadly lacking, with a narrative that goes all over the place and a performance by Prince that is so understated it may not even exist.
The film stars Prince as…well as Prince, although the film refers to him as “The Kid.” He and his band, the Revolution, perform in a nightclub and have a large rivalry with Morris Day and the Time. In the midst of this, a young girl named Apollonia comes looking to make it big. The Kid is infatuated with her, but Day is as well. Both try and fight for her affections while The Kid has to deal with his abusive father.
I do not even want to talk about the cinematography or editing on this one. It is the sort of thing that would be found in any number of 80s music videos. It works here, but it does not stand out. Well, actually it does in the first scene. The editing is so choppy the film may as well have been cut with a ginsu knife. It is a huge distraction, but it is hardly the biggest sin the film commits.
No, the biggest problem is Prince’s performance. He is meant to play himself, I guess. But I learned nothing about Prince watching this, except maybe he has an ego that would put William Shatner to shame. Nothing else though. Prince is such a soft spoken artist that revealing his true personality may hurt his credibility. The movie appears to be all about the capturing the essence of Prince. I suppose it captures the essence of his stage show. The greatest moments in the film are when the Revolution are on stage, playing. But to truly have been a film about Prince, it would have needed to capture his personality as well.
Not to mention tell a cohesive narrative. That item with Appolonia is not even resolved by the time the credits role. Oh sure, we see her watching the Revolution and beaming from the crowd. That plot resolution ended at about the time when Al Jolson was making his musical project. And the subplot with the Kid’s parents…well, it’s resolved, but I was never convinced of why it was needed. I guess it was based on Prince’s own parents, but I highly doubt that Prince’s father was the despicable bastard that The Kid’s father is. OK, I know the parents divorced, but what is presented in the film doesn’t call for a divorce: it calls for an arrest to be made. Luckily, it allows for the one and only human scene Prince has in the film, in which he discusses music with his drunken father. He should have been doing such things throughout the film. Too little, too late.
Is the film terrible? No, I can think of a hundred films released by Hollywood each year that are worse than this. The main problem is that the film is so cliched. It entices us to enter a secret world. Even now, it acts as a sort of time capsule to capture 1980s pop zeitgeist. The costumes and set design are also quite good. But Prince is not an actor. His other films clearly show that. Check out Graffiti Bridge if you want even more proof.
So that’s it. This review is going to be short, really, because there is nothing left to say. Prince will always be a musical legend. The soundtrack album shows that. In fact, the album outshines the film in every single way. Just put that on and escape into paradise. Forget this film: it has no cohesive narrative, no real performances, nothing that could not have been done with a long music video rather than a full length feature film. I am glad that it cemented Prince with the well deserved musical reputation he has today. That does not mean I have to like his film.