This week, as part of my coping method over the death of Prince, I went and saw Purple Rain on two separate occasions. Once on Monday at a $5 AMC about 20 minutes from my house and the other at the Plaza Theater in Atlanta last night at midnight.
I hadn’t seen Purple Rain since college when I was in my peak fascination with Prince. I remembered mostly as a glorified music video with a plot that was mostly just holding the transitions between music segments together. After watching it twice this week on a big screen (once in a quiet theater and another when everyone was singing and dancing along), I’m still certain that’s mostly correct, but I could also start to see why the film was so magic to the crowds that came to the theaters in the 80s.
If you’re not aware, Purple Rain is the story of a young man named The Kid who is the leader of a band The Revolution, who are starting to fall apart at the seams due to The Kid’s stubbornness as well as the tendencies he shares with his abusive father. He starts a relationship with a woman named Apollonia, who is also being courted by his rival Morris Day, and those same tendencies threaten his relationship with her as well. Also, Jerome Benton throws a woman in a dumpster at one point. That part has nothing to do with the actual plot.
Purple Rain is not an autobiography, but after rewatching it for the first time in six or seven years, I realized that this is probably the closest Prince ever pulled back the curtain on his own life. The story is of a young man who comes from a damaged home who is falling into the cycles of his father before him. Music is his only escape from this, but in turn, it still causes him to fall into those cycles of Francis L. before him.
While the acting in this movie is sometimes odd and not an exact one-for-one of Prince’s life, there’s a certain vulnerability behind his performance. Of a man desperately trying to hold onto his life as it is, but as it is won’t move him forward. It isn’t until the rude awakening of his father’s suicide attempt that he even tries to make a good faith effort to apologize to the people he’s hurt. Which is why the ‘Purple Rain’ scene is so transcendent. Most of it is focused on The Kid himself as he bares his soul to the audience, both on First Avenue and in the theaters. It’s probably the closest I’ve seen a concert scene in a movie get to that visceral feeling of when a musician lays it all out there and you can feel it in the crowd that something is different about it.
It’s also significant that the ‘Purple Rain’ scene isn’t just an apology to Apollonia, but also to Wendy and Lisa. By using their music to create a sprawling epic of a song that saves their jobs and his relationship, it’s not only an apology, but also an indicator of trust. While Wendy and Lisa weren’t involved with the writing of ‘Purple Rain,’ it does parallel their rise as Prince’s trusted collaborators from 1983 to 1986. A relationship that Prince didn’t share with many others over the course of his career.
It’s fitting that when The Kid comes back for an encore, the stage seems to be covered in fresh flowers. Even more so than the scenes with Apollonia during ‘I Would Die 4 U,’ that seems to be the true signifier of a new start.
Prince was a rare and private man. One full of contradictions and complexities you can’t even begin to crack in this lifetime. However, Purple Rain stands the test of time not because it is a vanity project, but rather a moment where he let you into the vulnerability inside his heart. It’s bizarre, beautiful and maybe I don’t give it enough credit for what it manages to get across in two short hours.
Jerome still throws a woman in a dumpster though. I will never get over that.