“Is this guy the biggest cult artist in the world, who has a million people who will follow him wherever he goes and however experimental he gets? Or is he a guy who fills stadiums and plays the Super Bowl halftime show and is one of the, you know, biggest pop-music artists in history? He's capable of both of those things, but what does he want?” – Alan Light, author of Let’s Go Crazy (NPR All Things Considered – 2014)
Even if you don’t own any one of his albums, even if you hadn’t seen Purple Rain until a celebratory showing two days after his passing, even if you didn’t know how many amazing hit singles he wrote for other artists, Prince and his effect on the landscape of music and pop culture bleeds into your daily life in an almost hypnotic, Jedi-mind-trick kind of way. These skinny jeans are the pants you’re looking for. To that end, watching Purple Rain for the first time in a theater full of fans dancing and singing along, I was so persuaded to love it. I mean, it’s Prince; how do you not love it? The answer is simple – out of context domestic violence.
Purple Rain is a loosely biographical tale of Prince’s early life as told through the character of The Kid (Prince Rogers Nelson), a talented young musician trying to express himself and draw crowds without compromising his vision. A rivalry between Morris Day (and The Time) for fans as well as the affections of a mysterious out-of-town beauty, Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), serve to ignite a spark in The Kid which drives the 111 minute music video forward.
I enjoyed the film for what it is. It was so adorably culty I found myself begging to drink the Kool-Aid. The fantastic pulp, dark realism and surprising comedy involved serve the audience a smorgasbord of conflicting ideologies which I’m still having trouble digesting; is it delightfully indicative of life itself because it’s all things at once? Or is it an undefined mess of hodgepodge designed specifically to highlight Prince’s musical numbers? Despite the discombobulation of the ever changing themes, I found myself caught up in the Abbott and Costello inspired “password” conversation between the lecherous Morris and his right hand man, Jerome. When ridiculous, the film seemed cohesive. The costuming was extremely inspired, and I was taken aback by how relevant the fashion of the 80’s seems to be today. Prince was great at acting like … well … Prince. The rest of the cast, which consists of band members and first time actors, leave something to be desired; often resulting in an endearing kitsch.
Where I was thrown was the “When Doves Cry” inspired scene in which Apollonia gifts The Kid a brand new guitar (very sweet) and tells him she’s going to work with Morris on a musical endeavor (normal, slightly exciting information). Apparently, this is offensive enough to result in The Kid striking her across the face and leaves him conflicted as to whether he is “just like my father,” the physically and sexually abusive patriarch (Clarence Williams III) plagued by psychological conflict and (I hope) guilt. There is
I was having a perfectly lovely time reveling in Prince’s amazing performances, laughing at Morris Day and admiring Apollonia’s ample assets (“That ain't Lake Minnetonka”) until the domestic violence theme slapped me in the face along with the leading lady. Fighting with myself about why this would be necessary and whether the issue could be addressed in such an easy pass of a movie, I must admit the exploration of nature versus nurture was well represented. The Kid’s father shooting himself as a result of inner demons and his repeated actions reinforcing those impulses brings an even deeper shock of reality to a movie that I just wanted to enjoy. Such an event instinctively inspires sympathy, but then you remind yourself that he beats and rapes his wife, so he deserves it … right?
That’s my system fighting against the trance of pleather and purple; these are not the themes I’m looking for, Prince! Stop tricking me! The Kid’s mother staying by her husband’s side, Apollonia’s forgiveness and The Kid getting the girl in the end (after an unapologetically phenomenal performance of the film’s title song “Purple Rain”) left me with a scowl than can only be described as … icky. I didn’t want to be faced with the trials and nuances that reinforced behavior passes down. Should she stay, understanding that forgiveness may be needed in this case? Should she leave for her own protection? Should she call the cops and make sure he never touches another woman again? The fact that this movie has me questioning my own interpretation of right and wrong is maddening.
So, since Prince and first time director Albert Magnoli decided to make an undefined statement about abuse, I was not able to enjoy the movie as much as I wanted to. And with all the makeup, heels, motorcycles, band tension, acceptance, music and sultry sexuality, I really wanted to love it. Regardless, Prince is a treasure who no longer belongs to just the earth but now the ether. His creativity, honesty and expression are enough to forgive anything mediocre that may result. Goodnight, sweet Prince. Nothing compares to you.