Combustible Celluloid
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With: Prince, Patty Apollonia Kotero, Morris Day, Olga Karlatos, Clarence Williams III, Jerome Benton
Written by: Albert Magnoli, William Blinn
Directed by: Albert Magnoli
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 111
Date: 07/27/1984

Purple Rain (1984)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Go Crazy

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Landmark Cinema's summer 2004 slate of midnight movies included a sing-a-long version of Purple Rain. It was so popular that the fans demanded a second screening before the first one even happened.

What is it about Purple Rain that keeps it so beloved while Prince's other two films Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and Graffiti Bridge (1990) are vilified and/or forgotten? In her 1984 review, Pauline Kael pointed out something James Dean-like about Prince in Purple Rain, not as an actor, but as a presence. Despite the fact that he has composed some of the 1980s most original and amazing music, he's still unsure of himself. He wants to know his place in the world.

In the film, Prince plays The Kid, a performer at a local club. He lives with his parents and suffers while his father beats his mother. (His father blames his own failed career as a musician on her.) The Kid seems destined to follow the same path, as his original, personal compositions tend to confuse the customers at the club.

Likewise, his new love interest Apollonia (Patty Apollonia Kotero) has aroused a certain violence in him. And two of his band members, Wendy & Lisa, have composed a new song that he refuses to listen to, which causes unrest in the band.

On the other hand, everything is going great guns for the club's other big act, The Time, led by Morris Day and his "servant" Jerome Benton. Morris and Jerome slap together a sexy girl act and coax Apollonia to join, much to The Kid's chagrin.

But The Kid pulls everything back together again when he finally listens to Wendy & Lisa's song, composes "Purple Rain" from its haunting chords, and performs it at the club. Everyone within earshot melts and weeps and accepts The Kid as the genius and wonderful human being that he really is.

Purple Rain was directed by a first-timer, Albert Magnoli, who could frame a music video but who lacked the skill to shape the film. And so it plays out in a fantasy world, like a lengthy video in which everything is shiny and everyone dresses amazingly. The performers have a bit of a wink behind their performances, and so the artificiality meshes together neatly.

Prince really carries the film, both with his astonishing soundtrack music (arguably one of the two or three greatest albums of the 1980s) and his promise of a kind of sexual liberation. No one in Purple Rain has any hang-ups about their attraction to the opposite sex and their longing for erotic adventures; they are more worried about succeeding professionally and emotionally. It's an enticing world, especially for men who get to look at the astoundingly sensual Apollonia. For women, the pansexual Prince offers a more mysterious draw.

The film isn't really much fun. Unlike A Hard Day's Night or the Elvis movies, it's deadly serious in its themes of failure, violence and family ties. Yet it can be passionate and moving and exotic. And certainly tunes like "Let's Go Crazy" and "Jungle Love" will make you want to dance.

Warner Home Video has re-released the film on DVD for its 20th anniversary in a great two-disc set. It comes with a digitally re-mastered transfer, apparently in widescreen for the first time (though I can't vouch for that), with terrific sound and a filmmaker commentary track (sorry, no Prince). Disc two comes with several featurettes, the original MTV broadcast of the premiere party (featuring a young Eddie Murphy and other stars), and eight music videos.

At the same time, Warner Home Video is releasing two other Prince films on DVD, the two that most of us would like to forget: Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and Graffiti Bridge (1990). Prince wrote, directed and stars in both. Kirsten Scott Thomas made her debut in Under the Cherry Moon and looks great in the movie's luminous black-and-white cinematography. If you thought William Shatner was an egomaniac, just check these out. Both DVDs come with music videos and trailers.

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