In a perfect world, every film would begin with the opening sequence of Purple Rain. Not like the opening sequence of Purple Rain, mind you, but quite literally with the very first 8 minutes of Prince’s epic, epochal (p)opera simply tacked onto the front end of every movie ever, like some kind of pulse-quickening, nipple-hardening Academy Leader. Exultant backbeat, flicker of mirror shades and vinyl-clad cleavage, rampant, full frontal eyeliner applications, lascivious fret-fingering, and oh those glorious planes of neon slicing across each and every preening tableaux!
Precise, heady, momentous, and manic, it’s a crosscut feverdream of camp, bombast, and cool, converging upon the beatific, cravat-festooned silhouette of our hero, “The Kid”—all tremble and grind. The wall of sound and image which announces Purple Rain is a singularly cinematic curtain raising, a herald of “show time” siphoned from the ur-overture itself.
As for rest of the movie, what can we say? Prince eats some Doritos, pines for a guitar in a window, predatorily humiliates Apollonia, falls into—then learns the better of—the sins of the father. Dr. Fink makes a wisecrack, some admittedly awesome basement groping goes down, Wendy and Lisa affirm their value as band mates, and Prince’s small heart grows three sizes that day.
But for all its over-seriousness and overt silliness, all that really needs to be said about the 90 minutes draped so lovingly between those performance set pieces, is that it is still so much better than it ever had to be. Any film featuring the entirety of this album is already awesome by default, but Purple Rain is a better movie written for a song than most songs written for a movie.
Some musicless moments even border on truly great. The unrequited love of the cocktail waitress, Morris’s extended true-colors shudder alone backstage in the film’s penultimate scene. The showcases of The Kid’s rowing parents are the most surreally overwrought and illegible domestic exchanges shot by an American director in the 80’s besides Hopper or Lynch. Even beyond the narrative urgency and authorial sweep of each musical number, we can marvel at our inability to recall a movie that has so thoroughly and trustingly given itself over to long unbroken shots of one man from the waist up.
Perhaps few movies seem built to date as quickly, but 26 years later Purple Rain remains not only a rock movie paragon, but as sturdy as a self-styled mega-star autobiopic can be. By the time Michael Jackson got around to stretching himself across a feature film, it saw him saving kids from drug- peddling Gestapo and transubstantiating into a spaceship. Prince conceived a movie wherein he is a petty, paranoid, misogynist prick… in the parlance of the month, a douchebag.
Yes, it seems we are currently in the midst another once-in-a-generation, world-historic pop-event. But, whatever Ye’s pretensions toward MJ, the simultaneous sound of your own heart breaking and dick swinging is less King of Pop. than pure Purple One. (It’s also doubtful Kanye mastered the posture of apologizing for being too genius for this world by watching Captain EO.)
Purple Rain is ostensibly about the same egotistic reckoning—the trials and travails of trying to make what gets your dick hard, get everyone else’s dick hard too. Which is silly of course because by minute one there isn’t a soft dick in the house. And by the time Prince intones that dedication to Francis L. and the song “written by the girls in the band” begins to cascade from the screen, and those close-ups of those audience members (evermore revelatory upon each new viewing) take over the screen, and… if you know what I’m singing about up here come on, raise your hand.
Purple Rain the movie was massive hit, but the prestige picture of 1984 was another opulent and facile explication of the vagaries of haughtily dressed musical genius—Amadeus. As far as pop-prowess standing the test of time, even the real Wolfy is getting a run for his money, and Morris Day will always be my Salieri.