The shocking news has been confirmed. Prince is dead. I can’t believe it,and I can’t write anything. Like the rest of the world, I am devastated. Here is something I wrote about the movie in which I discovered his immense talent.
“Purple Rain” is a musical revolution, crossing gender, racial, and geographical boundaries. Rhythm and Blues meets Glam Rock in a Minneapolis Club called First Avenue that has its entrance on Seventh. The film wastes no time, beginning with the invocation / invitation / indoctrination “Let’s Go Crazy,” and those unfamiliar with Prince are in the middle of a brand new thing. The Kid is an electronic-voiced Smokey Robinson re-choreographing James Brown via Bob Fosse, and it doesn’t hurt that he is an ace guitarist.
His nemesis, Morris Day, sticks to the basic, old-school moves that always work, akcdistanced showman while The Kid is a passionate artist tottering between transcendence and incomprehensibility, Lately, The Kid has been losing his audience, and club owner Billy is looking for a replacement act. When Apollonia shows up from New Orleans, she is immediately drawn to The Kid, but Day whisks her into his pimped-up world with promises of stardom, plotting to use her to develop an act that will knock The Kid off the bill.
The Kid has internal problems, beginning with his band. Wendy and Lisa have been trying to get him to do some of their material, which he won’t even listen to. And everybody, the band, the audience, and the club owner, is sick of The Kid’s own music, which is more an expression of his inner conflicts than something the crowd can groove to. His home life is also a nightmare, with his musical failure of a father getting drunk and beating his mother in fits of paranoid jealousy. The Kid is trying not to follow in his father’s footsteps, but his quick-tempered hostility towards new girlfriend Apollonia, who he suspects of infidelity with Day, drives his music into further self-indulgence until his act becomes an embarrassment to everyone concerned.
This might seem a set-up for a generic musical, but “Purple Rain” is anything but generic. Prince is subversive on several levels, beginning with the variant perceptions of his own act. His way of delivering a super performance and then making it seem, in narrative terms, a disaster, is a brilliant toying with random aesthetics. The back-to-back performances of “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki,” with The Kid’s upper torso greased and an S&M blindfold across his eyes, provide an extreme example, A simulated sex act in the first song makes the audience uncomfortable, but when Day disses him, Billy replies that “the kid is in rare form,” suggesting that he approves of the act, which functions as a validation for the movie audience who, having no personal stake in what is happening on stage, can enjoy it for its aesthetic value alone. There is no approval, however, for “Darling Nikki,” the lyrics of which condemn and ridicule Apollonia’s supposed infidelity. The climax of the song, with The Kid grinding atop the piano, switching between male and female roles, is more subversive than the rude lyrics, as it posits the performer as both the victim and victimizer, a cross between mother and father that is later touchingly expressed in the song “When Doves Cry.”
There is more gender subversion in “Purple Rain” than the simple matter of The Kid’s androgyny. Traditional male and female roles are often reversed, as witnessed by the strong characters of Wendy and Lisa as opposed to the weak, submissive characteristics of the male band mates. Apollonia, despite her trashy venality, is honest both in her emotions and her ambitions, while The Kid is rigged with so many violent defense mechanisms that he doesn’t care about anybody except himself, a situation that is laced with self-destruction. It isn’t until his father attempts suicide that he realizes he has to open himself up to the people around him if he is to survive.
The final reel of “Purple Rain” liberated R&B from the debilitating influence of Stevie Wonder’s middle-of-the-road meanderings and the baby-pap of Michael Jackson, returning it to the possibilities once opened by artists such as Little Richard and James Brown. The Kid begins by dedicating a song by Wendy and Lisa to his father, then delivers a knock-out rendition of the title song that is like a marriage between John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix. The crowd reaction shots, though corny, perfectly reflect and return the communicative energy coming from the stage. When it is over, he is completely spent, fleeing the stage in pent-up confusion, bursting into the street where, hearing the applause from inside, he smilingly returns to the stage to deliver a relentless barrage of straight, solid funk. As he performs “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star,” he realizes that the people are looking, not for a martyr, but for someone to represent them, a symbol, not of despair, but of joy.
The film’s most revolutionary statement is this rejection of selfish expression. Contrary to the esteem in which mentally ill and suicidal personalities are held in the broken canon of Western popular art, “Purple Rain” maintains that the artist is not the one with the most neurotic personality, but the one who can best express the culture of which he is a part.