A Clockwork Purple

How Prince's revolution was won--and where it got him

Paint a perfect picture/Bring 2 life a vision in one's mind.
--Prince, "The Beautiful Ones"

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called Purple Rain--the Citizen Kane of Minnesota movies and a worldwide showcase for the ascendance of its then-26-year-old star into rock 'n' roll eternity. Ladies and gentlemen...the revolution.

When this lurid, riveting, high-pitched tale of "a brilliant but struggling young musician" (per the original press kit) began shooting at First Avenue and 31 other Twin Cities locations in November 1983, Prince hadn't yet conquered Reagan's white-bread America. Back then, he was still an ambiguous androgyne who sang in a discomfiting falsetto about doing his sister; a musical genius who had, as his album sleeves touted, "produced, arranged, composed and performed" nearly every note on a handful of increasingly visionary LPs; and a hot property who, having just sold two million copies of 1999, seemed infinitely worthy of Warner Bros.' $7 million investment in a big-screen vehicle. By the time it was released nine months later, Purple Rain (screening Wednesday in Stevens Square Park), following closely on the heels of the fastest-selling single in a decade ("When Doves Cry"), found Prince and Minneapolis as the Caligula and ancient Rome of a new, interracial pop world. In this, the artist's "emotional autobiography" (its working title was Dreams) didn't so much reflect "the Minneapolis scene" as "paint a perfect picture" of it in Technicolor. As a result, more than a few of the Bic-wavers who made the pilgrimage to First Avenue in 1984 and '85 were made to wonder, "So--where are all the black people?"

Still, if representation can be the next best thing to reality (and sometimes a precursor to it), Prince can indeed be credited with starting a revolution--even if the Purple Rain project was essentially a masturbatory one, made manifest by the film's penultimate money shot of the Purple One shooting a copious, creamy load from his ax-cum-squirt gun. Befitting a radical movement led by royalty, the movie introduces our guitar-slinging, trench-coat-clad, purple-Harley-riding hero onstage, preaching to the converted ("Dearly beloved...") before an MTV-inspired flashback finds him primping in front of a backstage mirror. Whatever one thought of Prince's colossal arrogance in 1984, it was hardly unearned: Prodigious songcraft aside, here was a man who, during "Let's Go Crazy," for example, could pound out a piano part with his foot, leap from the keyboard and do the splits in midair, land, grab the mic, pant three times on the beat, twirl 360 degrees, kick both (high) heels, land again, and hit the next riff on his six-string--all in less than ten seconds.

But despite such stupefying talent, Prince's The Kid is deeply conflicted, you see--a moody workaholic from an abusive family, a control-freak loner with a Messiah complex ("I would die 4 u"), and a jealous lover who finds threats to his authority both onstage and off. Not that the artist was wholly neurotic: Even paranoids have enemies. As Vanity Fair put it in '84, "Prince has created a complicated sexual theater in the heart of Mondale country." Indeed, near the end of a six-month gold rush that saw the Strib publish no fewer than 43 articles on Purple Rain and/or its star, the office of Rudy Perpich was receiving a hundred calls per day in protest of the governor's opportunistic Christmas-week proclamation of "Prince Days" (coinciding with the artist's unprecedented five-show stand at the St. Paul Civic Center). "You don't have to be a nut or a feminist, or even a Christian," wrote the Strib's inimitable Jim Klobuchar, "to wonder what the state of Minnesota is doing bestowing its official benedictions on an erotic entertainer during a week when a lot of people are trying to hold onto the vanishing strands of reverence in Christmas." God help us! Evidently fearing 1999, Klobuchar may not have realized that, pace John Lennon, Prince's star had already eclipsed Bethlehem's.

Among its many sacrileges, Purple Rain makes good on Controversy's promise to "Jack U Off," as, accompanied by a suitably orgasmic soundtrack, The Kid introduces a teenage groupie named Apollonia (Patricia Kotero) to the pleasures of heavy petting. (For purposes of comparison, recall that around this time Michael Jackson was still busy asserting that Billie Jean was not his lover.) Figuratively speaking, Prince really was trying to reach out and touch his "hardcore audience"--which the Strib's Jon Bream had pegged as "females ages 14 to 18." Shrewdly, the film makes Kotero's overeager Apollonia into a surrogate for the awestruck Prince fan: Fresh out of the cab to First Avenue from somewhere that would have put $37.75 on the meter (in other words, not the airport), our voluptuous alter ego busts her way into the club just in time to appear properly gape-mouthed during The Kid's "Crazy" solo--an outrageous, Hendrixian squealer meant to hit 'em in the cheap seats and make even the AM transistor sizzle. And so it did.

Not yet enmeshed in Paisley Park, Prince wanted to take U with him in 1984, which is to say that the truly erotic moments in Purple Rain are those that bind performer and fan together through the rough foreplay of film editing. After forcing Apollonia to "pass initiation" by purifying herself in the waters of "Lake Minnetonka" (which, in a sick joke, is actually a swamp), The Kid comes on strong by singing "The Beautiful Ones" just for her--and anyone who doesn't get goose bumps during it ought to check her pulse. (Racy it was, this scene, although the mainstream breathed a collective sigh of relief in discovering that Prince did indeed prefer girls.) Spying Apollonia seated at a table with his rival, the Time's flamboyant frontman Morris (Morris Day), The Kid acts passive-aggressive even in seduction mode, delivering a ballad that's alternately cold and steamy, elegant and raw. He coos, purrs, growls, and ultimately shrieks the lyrics ("Do u want him?/Or do u want me?/'Cuz I want u") until, finally, he's flat on his back, writhing in rock-star agony. (And the fan, naturally, is in tears.)

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