Six Grabs at Purple Rain
“What do you dream about?” – Apollonia’s question to the Kid (Prince) in Purple Rain (Albert Magnoli, 1984) goes right to the heart of the mysteries that animate this strange, beguiling, compelling movie. The Kid – a weird fictive conglomeration of fact, fancy, legend, cliché, gossip, both the Prince image and a somewhat watered-down feature-film revision of it – is, to say the least, inscrutable. Little by little, the paraphernalia that outlines this mystery is nonchalantly dropped into the flow: masks, puppets, toys, a little ventriloquist dummy. A private life with its private lines of flight: backstage corridors, the dressing room mirror, the road out of the city into the country, the cloistered bedroom in the family home that constitutes a world unto itself. The Kid cracks up off stage, just out of sight of his fans, his band, club staff: he makes love to Apollonia (who sneaks in the window at 8pm nightly) at home while his parents, staging their own scenes in the lounge room, are unaware (“Have you got a girlfriend?”, his father asks him later, in all innocence). And fleeting glimpses of even stranger retreats and idylls, their presentation motivated by, if not quite the narrative, then by a montage-logic borrowed from video rock clips: Apollonia and the Kid getting it off in a hay loft, swimming in a purple haze of light. Who is this Kid, what does he dream about, what the hell is going on inside that head?
The name is enough to cue you that, on one edge of this multiple-input musical narrative, the Kid is a child: cheeky game playing (the purification joke played on Apollonia), the disarmingly boyish smile, frills and lace, vulnerability and innocence. When his Dad hits him to the floor, he hasn’t even the strength to get up, let alone fight back. He has a child’s faith (in God?), a child’s determination, a child’s lack of strategies of deception and exploitation. But everything in Purple Rain twists to its opposite and back again, weirdly and messily – which is what makes it so fascinating. For the Kid, still a child, can be a particularly evil, willful, vicious, aggressive child; as well, he displays all the Princely signs of uncontrolled lust and showbiz kinkiness.
The Kid, in short, is an animal – and the film is at pains to express this on every physical and allusive level possible. Prince, in fact, brings a polymorphism to his music and his debut acting performance which is (why not?) a little in the man-child tradition of Jerry Lewis; that same startling and exhilarating span of vocal and bodily registers, performing lightning mixes between squeaky effeminacy and growly bass anguish, between the surprising calm and poise of an off-hand conversational normality and all-stops-out, sweaty, bug-eyed histrionics.
Around the Kid – complex and mysterious – all other characters (including Apollonia) are arranged as mono-dimensional; you can tell in a second what they dream about, one item from a short list that includes sex, money, relief, recognition (one and only one: so that if Apollonia wins the Kid, she loses her career). A lesson is planted regarding the complexities and reversibilities of mysteries such as the Kid, in the process of their being sorted out. Apollonia listens to the Kid’s tape of heavily suggestive female moaning and sighing layered over a drum machine track. “Who’s the lucky girl?” she asks. “She’s crying. It’s backwards”, he explains. “Kinda makes me sad when I hear it.” She then jumps to another conclusion: “Do you treat all your girls like that?” But there are no unidirectional answers and no simple connections to be drawn out of Purple Rain. Ecstasy/melancholia, aggression/love, death/desire ... not particularly new knots for either narrative cinema or rock music, but tied with many intriguing twists this time around.
Purple Rain is a musical film in a true, full, rich sense: it is a film with music, through music, about music. It has that particular graph of rhythm, intensity, and pulse that we know from any stadium rock concert; the same spacing out of peaks and lows, the same introductory teasers to scenes as to songs, the same accumulative balance of lyric ballads and raunchy showstoppers – transposed to a level of dramaturgy. Music of one sort or another is virtually never absent from the soundtrack: but Purple Rain, miraculously, ends up neither like a filmed concert interrupted by tiresome plot and pretext necessities, nor a banal Rock Myth staged in Never-Never land, where the musical culture that provided the inspiration for the myth gets a foot in the proceedings only as a faint echo or dim memory (like Walter Hill’s contemporaneous Streets of Fire , alas).
All the song performances mark very precise kinds of events – fiery, intense interactions between people (various stages of the Kid/Apollonia relationship, the insistence upon band equality made by Wendy and Lisa), projections of agitated mental states – as well as richly suggestive configurations of various thematic and symbolic threads that run throughout. The songs, in short, both form the action and also comment upon it; and, in true Old Hollywood fashion, they lay out with elegance a semantic map, a particular systematization of musical-cultural positions.
Each musical gesture and style in the film is the embodiment of a certain lifestyle. The slick disco performed by The Time, with its comic vulgarity (their bird dance), signals a streamlined, socialized desire on the part of black performers to merely look good, earn more, and live in the lap of consumerist hedonism – honky trash, in other words, except that (given the film’s characteristic ambivalence on all points, and its understandable desire to not turn in a deliberately dud song-and-dance), the scenes with The Time are fuelled by a light-entertainment showbiz pizzazz which is energetic, enjoyable, and a welcome relief from the movie’s heavy sections.
Prince’s music – his band is The Revolution as opposed to The Time (the times? marking time? tradition? the state of things?) – is represented in every possible way as a different kind of music, with a different set of gestures to convey: the animalism of punk funk, with its abrasively loud and chunky drum machine tracks, its generous doses of noise and atonality (Prince’s memorable piano solo with his feet), and its screeching Jimi Hendrix-style lead breaks (the psychedelic ‘60s looms large over the Prince image here). And, although the dominant semantic concern of this music is to appear heavy and unsubtle (so devoid of riffs and textures, so four-to-the-floor, that I am sure Quincy Jones wouldn’t have had a clue what to do with these songs in a studio), it, too, has its sweet and miraculous sidelights and reversions: angelic harmonies, sophisticated chord progressions, loopy rhythmic structures (Prince’s technical ability as a musician – seated at a piano sight-reading his father’s sheet music – is stressed).
Indeed, a mutation in musical style for the Kid is tied in elegantly with a change in his character and a resolution of the plot’s loose threads during the performance of the theme song, “Purple Rain”. (Earlier, Wendy and Lisa give up their attempt to make the Kid listen to this song, which they have, within the fiction, written – reverting, insultingly, to a heavy, punk-funk guitar riff: “Is this what you like to hear?”) Finally, of course, everything – all intensities, modalities, styles, situations of music – will be put right in the blending. The final sequence of three songs (“Purple Rain”, “I Would Die 4 U”, “Baby, I’m a Star”), performed before a bopping crowd of all the film’s characters, creeps and groovers alike, is so delicately and dizzily poised on an achieved equilibrium of differences, that it sends you out of the theatre entirely gaga – but not until a quick disco-mix of all the songs during the final credits has played. Shannon sang just the year before, 1983: Let the music play, he won’t get away ...
The camera tracks slowly down a corridor. We hear part of a cassette tape – the music given to the Kid by Wendy and Lisa – being played and rewound. The sound of the switches on the tape deck are violent, exaggerated, harsh; we’ve heard that sound several times already, whenever the Kid has ejected the same tape angrily or indifferently.
We are being set up. In the most delightful way.
When the camera peeks around the doorway, the Kid is at the piano; he has been listening intently, he begins to play and learn and adapt the girls’ tune. Everything comes together in this moment: his softening towards others, his desire to write a song out of grief over his dead father, his discovery of Dad’s unknown chest of collected musical compositions. Purple Rain is, in this respect, a pleasingly classical film; it uses motifs, echoes, recalls, memory cues. Most of its ongoing situations and themes are played out along a graceful curve of repetitions and variations: Apollonia’s anklette; Kid’s gift to her of his earring (she touches it when she performs her stage debut, takes it off and throws it at him when they fight); the first four chords of “Purple Rain” itself, heard many times before they receive their lyrics; the father’s violence toward the mother, later displaced onto and enacted by the Kid and Apollonia; running-gag reactions by regulars and staff at the club; the groovy white guitar Apollonia contrives to buy for him.
Some of these exchanges are clinched with a verve reminiscent, from the same era, of Jim McBride’s Breathless (1983) – clinched at once as both satisfying plot moves and gorgeous carvings of spaces and framings, motions and looks: it’s a big deal, and a big thrill, when the Kid suddenly throws the aforementioned anklette in his empty room and the camera zip-pans to find Apollonia on the stairs, catching it.
As in the older Hollywood musicals and melodramas whose form Purple Rain pleasingly mimics, a particular object emerges as the central stake of all these filmic constructions of memory and recall: the family, family relations, what Freud called a Family Romance. That hardly ever means a happy family, and Purple Rain is exemplary in this respect – with its brutal parade of familial tensions, beatings, quarrels, stand-offs and, finally, the father’s suicide. What happens in the family romance is more like a negotiation of identity, the discovery of one’s spiritual lineage, the positioning of both an origin and a destiny in the figure of a special parent. For this to occur, a dead parent is, in fact, far more mythically potent than a live, real, imperfect one; and memory is more wistful, more binding than presence.
From one angle, that’s surely what Purple Rain is all about: Prince in the image of his father (“Maybe I’m just like my Pa – too bold”), discovering bit by bit their deep commonality (the secret chest of sheet music), picking up his father’s life and work where it was left off or burnt out. And mother? Well, as you might imagine in this rather rigid symbolic economy of Fathers and Sons, “she’s never satisfied”, she’s a point of a disturbance, a bit of a problem; she will either flee the scene (where does the Kid’s mother go after the father’s suicide?), or be made less troublesome – Apollonia’s destiny, as she weeps for her crimes against the Kid caused by her petulant bid for independence, and takes up a position as mere spectator before the Kid singing “Baby, I’m a Star!”.
Impossible tension in the body of Prince: every song, every scene, is a physical ordeal (he collapses, exhausted, at the end of one number, chest heaving). His dance steps are carefully choreographed sequences of trembling stasis-moments, his hands, face, legs, feet always struggling to break this stasis with spastic outbursts of energy (in a split second: while spitting out a word, his hand hits the microphone once and the side of his guitar four times). A film obsessed, in general, with frustration and the release of tension: in which the flick of a light switch cues the squeezing of a trigger; in which violent aggression toward others can just as easily turn in on oneself; in which dressing rooms and bedrooms are private spaces to be regularly taken apart in rage; in which motorcycles, electric guitars, and bodies are, indifferently, the conductors of such tortured energy.
There’s something remarkably, heartbreakingly eloquent and pathetic about all this. Like in a number of powerful mainstream films from the mid ‘70s to mid ‘80s (Saturday Night Fever, Mandingo, Cruising, Scarface), this matrix of energy/frustration/release, this sad scenario of the perturbation of violence, reaches to the heart of a number of contemporary crises: insecurity, breakdown of identity, contradictions between personal desire and social duty. Any film that manages to reach – even inadvertently – into this mess exerts an urgent fascination.
But there are nagging interpretive mysteries, suggesting that a different orientation to these elements is intended in Purple Rain. Just what is the significance of the line which registers so ominously on a second viewing, spoken by the father after he has bawled out his wife: “I would die for you”? – a line later converted by the Kid into a key, celebratory, anthemic song. A Christian myth of sacrifice forms itself solidly within the film’s threads; its various acts and excesses of physical tension and violence are gathered together into a code or logic that attempts to justify them. The logic would run something like this: that there are Great Men (in a father-son lineage) who live more intensely than normal folk, who live out to excess the passions and angsts that others suppress, who burn out in magnificent acts of sacrifice … in short, who die for the rest of us.
This feeds easily into Romantic notions of the Artist (“This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you”), as well as – this is where Prince’s bizarre religious strain gets going – certain exaltations of rock’n’roll itself. In the shadow of the actual suicides and burn-outs made Myth (Hendrix, Joplin), Prince fashions his musical performance as a kind of perpetual sacrifice and exhaustion just short of death – giving all and demanding from his audience in turn the promise: “I would die 4 u!”
“I’m not your lover / I’m not your friend / I am something you will never comprehend” – here, as everywhere, Purple Rain installs mystery, ambiguity, and reversibility (in short, queerness) as its central obsessions. But in this instance of rock/religion sacrifice – that tries to make wife-beating and blowing-your-brains-out necessary and glorious acts – mystery gets frozen into an iconic spectacle, a star turn, rather uncomfortably immovable.
It would register as either the Ultimate Putdown or the perfect description of Purple Rain to say that it’s just a long video clip! It is a sad state of affairs indeed when we trade one lousy, pulverized category (so-called classical, mainstream film) off against its equally pulverized Other, the Postmodern/MTV video clip. With regard to Purple Rain, this reasoning would leave us in the position of either disdainfully writing it off (as yet another nail in the coffin of authentic cinema) or perhaps finding some bit of jazzily transgressive assemblage in it worth praising. (It was swiftly, of course, reworked/pulped into several Prince video clips.)
Obscured in this implied generic model is a profound link between a certain kind of cinema and that which, in contemporary cinema/media, resembles or re-finds it – and I am not reaching back here to montage-Eisenstein, or subversive Surrealism, or the freewheeling heterogeneity of whichever filmic avant-garde you please. Rather, it is to a cinema that confounds any pat theory of a clean narrative classicism, and queries the need to escape or destroy the monolith of mainstream film.
I am talking about the weird and wonderful world of the B movie, with its loops and tangents, breaks and edges, mutations and drifts, proud pastiches and creative errors within the fiction format. What I like in Purple Rain is not its putative video-clip avant-gardism, but rather the ways in which it reminds me of Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963), Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000 (1975), or Russ Meyer’s Supervixens (1975) – to name only a very few. We would need a Manny Farber to convey the wacky and beautiful minutiae of Purple Rain, when the recollection of it starts to expand in one’s head – and its world appears less and less a singular unity, and more and more a messy and lovable intersection of planes, edges, threads, styles, idioms.
To be sure, part of the film’s B movie (home movie?) charm proceeds from its use of musicians largely playing themselves (or so one suspects). Different physiognomies, dialects, ways of getting in and out of the frame: these collide and tangle in the funkiest way imaginable – part of the B movie refusal/inability to smooth out discrepancies in acting method and behavioral intensity. A similar fuel to the film’s fire is its determination to maximize each scene, and particularly each location, separating them out and finding appropriate means of heightening their significance and feel. This means that, as you watch, certain scenes seem to launch off into another movie altogether: the Kid’s motorbike speeds off into an idyllic pastoral paradise, and a laidback love duet (“Take Me With U”) takes over the soundtrack for a few minutes.
Purple Rain tumbles over with weirdly inventive and beautiful touches, coming out of nowhere (at least by conventional standards) or, rather, taking off from and suddenly magnifying a minor element or undercurrent in a scene, pitting sound and image against one another in a sudden, startling fashion: the way that strange buzz at the start of “When Doves Cry” is made to signify car horns and congested traffic; the way an insert of two tambourines and a hand diving in to grasp them completely tips the mood at the finale; that painfully sad expression on the face of Wendy Melvoin which the camera just glimpses during “Purple Rain”; the rhyming of a light switch and a gun trigger; the wonderfully out-of-character reaction when the Kid peers at his parents through a window and despondently intones: “Freakshow!”
What Purple Rain reminds us of, in the face of a whole series of mainstream musical-youth films of the ‘80s that were completely bland and homogenous, completely within the currently dominant mode of spectacular production, is that you only have to let go a little bit in order for an entire, riotous zoo of cultural dialects and idioms to flood into the text and make merry – and it reminds us that, once upon a time, this is what popular movies (of many genres and mutations) were all about. Just take a look at William Wellman/James Cagney films of the early 1930s, before the Hays Code clamped on: Purple Rain is there, somewhere.
What is popular culture and why ask this question of it? Back in the 1980s – the Princely time par excellence – we read and heard much about popular culture as a general category, a domain, an important phenomenon; and far less about its specific maps of difference, struggle, variety, dynamic contestation. Magazines sprang up under the Heaven-on-Earth banner of this phantom popular culture, declaring it to be the domain of irony, fun, pleasure, fun, spectacle, desiring investment, wallowing in the magnificent trivia of their chosen agendas: game shows, sunglasses, Entertainment This Week … theorized (or totalized) as providing the images of the modern, Western world.
Purple Rain gives a better time than most in the way of irony, pleasure, fun, spectacle and desiring investment; but it also cannot help but thereby entangle you in a rotten, difficult, complex mess of sex and power relations, life-and-death pledges, dependence/independence conundrums. Why would we want to write these torsions and tensions out of the film? They are part of the real stuff that fascinates, intrigues, and haunts us.
Purple Rain tries to have it both ways on every point: it trashes Apollonia but elevates Wendy and Lisa; it condemns aggression but condones sacrifice; it criticizes the Kid’s self-indulgence (“Your music makes sense to no one but yourself!”) but glorifies his self-expression (the audience cries with him, feels for him). This ambivalence is extraordinary, eliciting and requiring our emotional responses just as much as our critical reflexes. An ideological line on the film – easy to produce – would be comically insufficient; but so, too, would a simple, showbiz/pop culture celebration.
Cinema as a constructive, productive mess: such a phenomenon, assuredly, has nothing to do with some tidy, magical separate sphere marked Popular Culture 101. Grabbing at Purple Rain is to lunge at the social and personal field of possibilities and dynamic differences that feed straight into the film and shoot straight out again – not out to the fun-loving silent majority (as philosopher Jean Baudrillard dubbed the ‘masses’ in the ‘80s), but out to real audiences who are divided, split, twisted, and urgently fascinated by the vicissitudes of media spectacle.
MORE Prince: Graffiti Bridge
© Adrian Martin September 1984 / April 2016