I work hard not to get too personal in my movie reviews, bringing up relevant facts at most that establish a background from which I review, to sort of help any readers see what angle I’m coming from, but in this case it’s going to prove difficult to completely separate. I am going to do my best, but my apologies for what will inevitably at least dip into my personal life, somewhat unavoidably.
While most movies hang around my apartment for a while after I buy them, some wait longer than others. Sometimes it’s a massive undertaking to dive into them–such as those in the three to four hour running time bracket–sometimes I’m hoping for or expecting new editions, or even find them arriving (An Officer and a Gentleman, The Grapes of Wrath, etc), sometimes I just can’t bring myself to give in to what is likely the only release they’ll see (the original Star Wars films, which I won’t watch infected with Lucas’ retconning stupidities, and hope for at least an anamorphic transfer of the original cuts), and sometimes I intend to watch them with people. Heavenly Creatures is still sitting around waiting as I intended to view it with my parents, New York, New York was suffering a similar fate–then got re-released, and this one, Graffiti Bridge and Under the Cherry Moon were all waiting to be viewed with my then-girlfriend, a massive Prince fan. I put it off and put it off and now I have to use that little prefix “then-,” and suddenly it became an issue of not needing to open old wounds, rather than simply waiting for the right time or for her to be around. Finally, I’ve felt I’m in a safe enough place to deal with it that I decided to sit down and do it.
Prince Rogers Nelson, also known as Prince and O(+>, plays “the Kid,” an otherwise unnamed musician based at least in part on Prince himself, who plays at First Avenue (a real club in Minneapolis, MN where Prince, indeed, played in reality) to shrinking crowds, his band, the Revolution, constantly competing with Morris Day and the Time for stagetime and the chance to make it big, as they say. One Apollonia (for the record, Prince and his “parents” are the only ones who do not go by their real names on film, so I’m not going to bother with credits from now on, except for those two) enters with dreams of becoming a star, skipping back and forth between the Kid and Morris Day for whichever will treat her right and get her what she wants. He contends with Wendy and Lisa, two members of the Revolution who have written a song (the titular one, in fact, but they in fact did not write it–though they did contribute, as they themselves admit in the special features on this anniversary DVD) and want the band to play it.
What I think is possibly most interesting about the plotting of this movie is it does not paint the notoriously controlling, egocentric and eccentric that Prince is as a perfect or wonderful guy–he is told repeatedly that he is like his father, something he has to slowly realize. He is not a fan of his father, who abuses his mother. He loves them both anyway, but clearly it’s a love/hate sort of relationship with his father. Some of his parents’ relationship worms its way into how the Kid interacts with Apollonia, which is not a good thing and not portrayed as one, or as an acceptable one. His ego is directly addressed in fact, as the crowds dwindle and he’s told that his music only makes sense to him (of course, this was right after “Darling Nikki,” leading me to believe the manager of First Ave was on drugs) and he viciously tears Wendy and Lisa down repeatedly. It was rather surprising and a “happy” surprise at that.
As far as his acting, well, I tend to hear “Wow, he’s surprisingly good,” (fans) or “God, he cannot act,” (apologetic fans, critics and snobs). The truth is somewhere inbetween. Like many of the band members and other real people playing their actual roles, there’s an awkward, amateurish feel to most of the acting. That sort of adds a thrill, to me, though. It makes me think, “Hey, these are the ACTUAL people!” and sort of pushes us into the territory that reminds us that–yeah, this is about the music. Purple Rain (the album, that is) is a great album. The performances here are fantastic, Prince in top form on his feet, on his axe and vocally (I do believe at least some of it was recorded live audio-wise as well), and the rest of the band does not laze about at it either.
I should note, though, that I feel this period in Prince’s career–musically–was a sidestep between where he had been (actually my favourite period, those full-on funky, R&B albums like For You, Dirty Mind and Controversy) and where he was going, to a more refined and diverse musical palette that he ended up moving into afterward and sort of continued in to this day (with great variation under that umbrella, certainly). I felt 1999 and Purple Rain were sprawling excess–not bad excess mind you, but bringing a full band, increased experimentation and production over curling, synth stings and hooks, which I loved. But that’s irrelevant. It doesn’t mean this music is bad. Far, far, far, far from it. It’s fantastic. And hiding in all of this we have Clarence Williams III as the Kid’s father–who I know as Samson Simpson in Half-Baked and I believe a handful of tv spots, always with an intensity and violence in him, but certainly a control of his being and character that does create a contrast with everyone else who has not acted constantly.
So, it’s exciting, it’s engaging, it’s flawed (maybe not deeply flawed, Mulder*) but it’s good. Thankfully I made it through without losing my mind and enjoyed myself along the way.
*If you get the SPECIFICS of that reference, holy crap, you are quite a geek.