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Rock Rewind: Prince’s “Purple Rain” Revisted

Nick Anderson | Monday, April 20, 2009

The 1980’s were a strange time. The style of those years is almost incomprehensible. Our generation’s current fascination with this past decade seems to originate in a comparison which makes us seem almost intelligent. In as much as our fashion comes off as superior, it’s hard to give the 80’s much credit. There remains, however, one aspect of the 80’s which is hard to contend with for any decade; the music. While a fair amount of filler was produced, a huge number of excellent artists emerged who were able to achieve both critical and commercial success. One of the rare musicians who reached this summit was Prince. Before Prince became somewhat of a musical punch line by changing his name to a symbol (O(+> for those who missed it), he had put together one of the most impressive decades of the past 30 years. While his musical peak occurred with the release of “Sign O’ the Times,” his cultural peak followed the release of the film “Purple Rain” in 1984. In a modern viewing, the movie cannot be taken seriously. Its immersion into the 80’s plays for laughs. In more than one scene, a club full of people dance in unison. The clothing and make up (on both sexes) looks more at home at a costume party. Not even the slang comes off as authentic. Beyond that, the storyline is full of holes. There are several relationships which are left unexplained. The shooting looks worthy of a much lower budget and the attempts at symbolism are shallow. But if you’re watching a film starring Prince for its cinematic value, you’re missing the point. What it lacks in substance, the movie more than makes up in entertainment. At its core, it’s a two hour long music video and by keeping music as its focus, it excels. While Prince’s music serves as the score for the film, the finest moments are the music performances. Most of these scenes were shot in a single take and on location at First Avenue nightclub in Minneapolis, Minn. Prince takes command of the entire audience with an energetic, aggressive stage presence which leaves no questions as to why he’s considered one of the best live shows, even today. For a musician with such a large ego, it’s amazing that Prince’s performances don’t overpower the movie. Prince allows his rival, Morris Day, to steal a couple of scenes. Day’s performances don’t reach the same emotional highs as Prince, but they’re just as entertaining. “Jungle Love”, the group’s most successful song, provides a wonderfully flamboyant stage show, complete with animal sounds and a dancing hype man. In fact, Day’s over-the-top and uncontrolled acting provide a compelling reason to watch the film on their own. While the climax of the storyline revolves around Prince’s relationship with his father, the high point is when Prince and the Revolution take the stage to play the title track. As an expressive Prince plays the best song he ever wrote, the audience is left floored at both the outpouring of emotion and sheer majesty of the music. Even in the outlandish and somewhat cheesy atmosphere, “Purple Rain” stands out as one of the best performances ever filmed. Although Prince went on to star in two more movies, he would never come anywhere close to the success enjoyed by “Purple Rain”. Instead, it propelled his musical career even higher and gave him a huge and well deserved mainstream audience. For such an awesome display of music, it’s amazing how few people under the age of 40 have seen it. Over the past 25 years, “Purple Rain” went from one of the best rock and roll movies ever to a forgotten gem. At some point, everyone should get out their best high heels, eye liner, and tight pants and take two hours to marvel at the experience that is “Purple Rain”.