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Remembering Prince: Purple Rain — the original City Pages review

Prince probably hated our review.

Prince probably hated our review.

As originally printed in the August 1, 1984 issue of City Pages. Read "Remembering Prince" here.

In Purple Rain, Prince performs with demonic verve. He is both pop idol and artist; when he struts himself into a sweat or delivers his primal scream, he’s both ferocious and adorable, and he knows it.

In fact, he seethes with self-knowledge: Purple Rain is an extraordinary act of confidence. Prince pulls it off, he’s intensely watchable, but I’m not sure he’ll ever be a movie star (he may not want to be one), and I’m not sure Purple Rain is even a movie.

There’s a great scene when Prince sings onstage to his ambitchious girlfriend sitting in the audience. His mournful song, “The Beautiful Ones,” becomes a deliriously angry rumination on unrequited love. It comes at us in torrents.

By the end of it, Prince is a screeching heap writhing on the stage floor as if crucified to it. He moves his lady (Apollonia Kotero, acting in a purple haze) to tears.

Though I don’t believe the tears on her vapidly beautiful face, I believe the idea of them. His rage is the real thing. Never mind that “the Kid” Prince portrays changes his feelings about every five seconds. His stage performance soars beyond “the Kid” and leaves even the film’s dizzying editing effects in the dust.”

Unfortunately, in Purple Rain, Prince and company spend lots of time offstage, and the volatile attempts at drama can’t compete with the high-voltage musical sequences. There’s a sensibility at work — and it’s a game try — to make a narrative film completely in the rock video format.

In other words, they’ve filmed the dramatic scenes with the same telegraphed “brilliance” of the best of MTV. Prince and director Albert Magnoli are breaking new ground, but the soil they’re tilling may actually be impenetrable cement.

There’s not a writer alive who could communicate the breadth of life or a social scene (in this case, the musicland of Minneapolis) with mere snippets of dialogue. Prince is attempting to stylize his past and his emergence as an artist through punchy vignettes. 

This kind of challenge is almost exciting enough: The rhythms of his life are set to match the beat of his music through the editing rhythms of his film. But there’s more to city life than music or noise. The talk, when we get it, is all jive-cute or silly-sappy.

Every dialogue scene is staccato, abbreviating both challenges and tragedies. Purple Rain doesn't even rip off many movie cliches: Conversations are like the pat communication of TV commercials, and the product they’re selling is Prince.

So his browbeaten and physically abused mother can utter a howler like “You don’t let me have any fun,” while The Mod Squad’s Clarence Williams III, portraying the father, roars and paces like a lion. There’s no time to question why their homelife is a perpetual war.

Dramatic scenes are so compressed Prince can slap his girlfriend in the face (while the abominable Dolby makes it sound like a thunderclap), and moments later he’s asking her, “Don’t you like the way we are?” Maybe Prince actually views his life as a stampede of events and wished to convey that very point, but his film has turned reality into a contrived ruckus of street language and seedy/vogue looks at Minneapolis.

Purple Rain has all the earmarks of a vanity production because it is one, one that ends up exhausting our interest in the star. The film’s premise is how a selfish artist finally develops a heart, but the premise is transparently self-serving.

So when the Kid finally agrees to perform a song composed by two snubbed members of his band (one he previously and adamantly refused to sing), Prince is having his cake and eating it too, since he actually wrote the song. He does the number for heartbreak (and it is effective), but he’s also basking in his own glorious pain.

Purple Rain is the hippest kind of hype because the hipster is so hip the hype tastes holy. Prince’s false humility is appalling, no matter how well he’s performing.

Read "Remembering Prince" here.