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‘The Kid’ (Prince) is the talented but troubled frontman for his band, The Revolution, a stylish rock band that is in constant competition to keep its place on the playlist of the popular night club ‘First Avenue’, where they headline with two other acts, one of which, Morris Day and the Time, want The Kid out. The Kid has problems at home, too, with a father who beats his wife and him. Meanwhile, a pretty girl named Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) strolls into the club and wants to become a singer. She catches the eye of both The Kid and Morris and while she starts a relationship with The Kid, ends up singing for Morris, causing a rift. But that’s not all. The women in The Kid’s band are feeling rebellious as he refuses to perform any of their songs. These are not easy times.
Directed by Albert Magnoli, Purple Rain is a big, brash, bold musical drama that feels like a bio-pic for its star, though it really isn’t. A relic of the era in which it was made, the experience is peculiar to be sure, a sometimes exhilarating, occasionally offensive, but always engaging story that takes its corny story very seriously. It swings the pendulum wide, never giving much weight to the real issues it presents, including violence toward women, but delves deeper into the politics of the local music biz. Laced with a lot of uncomfortable, even disturbing treatment of women throughout (at one point, a girl is literally picked up and tossed in a dumpster), it cast all its characters in thinly-defined archetypes, but seems content to do so. It’s far more interested in the music than the message.
In fact, the movie is essentially a two-hour concert, packing in song after song while it wedges in some story between them. While the acting is notoriously bad, Mangoli’s direction is superb, thanks mostly to Donald E. Thorin‘s excellent cinematography. Every performance on stage is high energy and exciting to watch.
Still, there is a lot of fun here for what it is, with Prince’s considerable charisma plowing through the often stilted dialog and contrived plot to the film’s magnificent titular finale, that to this day still packs an emotional wallop. This spectacular bit of concert footage captures the real magic in why Prince was such a remarkable entertainer. Purple Rain may not be great storytelling, but it is a treasure for its musical contribution and while a good deal of eye-rolling and grimacing is part of the show, for the sheer bravado of Prince’s incredible stage presence, this is one to watch.
The Kid’s father (Clarence Williams III) was once a rising star, a talented musician that never found his place, his music too personal. Now older, unhappy and disillusioned, he is constantly angry. We see him beating his wife (Olga Karlatos) on several occasions with The Kid jumping in to stop him. While not digging too far into its history, the home is clearly a place of unrest, despite moments when ‘mother’ and ‘father’ share some tenderness.
On one particular night, The Kid arrives home after watching his girlfriend perform as part of Morris Day’s new act, Apollonia 6, an all-female group that gyrate on stage in lingerie while singing about sex. Angered at her choice to work with Day, he fights with her, nearly striking her (something he’s already done once before), but staving off his fury in time. She breaks up with him and he rides home on his motorcycle alone.
Once there, he realizes something very bad has happened. Inside, the living room is strewn with broken furniture with everything in disarray. We see a glimpse of ‘father’ in a darkened hallway downstairs, obviously in distress. A handgun emerges from the shadows and when The Kid flips on the light switch, a gunshot fires. It cuts to arriving emergency service crews and paramedics frantically trying to tend to ‘father’, who is shot in the head by a self-inflicted wound. Beside him, ‘mother’ wails in sorrow as they rush him out of the house. The Kid stays behind as police ask questions, and then soon enough, he is alone again.
It is here, in the aftermath, as the gunshot echoes in his head, that he breaks down. He sees a length of coiled rope and the chalk outline of this father and then a vision of himself hanging from the ceiling rafters, like a criminal in the Old West. In a rage, he explodes, rampaging through the room, destroying everything in sight, eventually coming upon a crate of sheet music that he hurls into the air, until he realizes that it is all music written by his father.
To this point, we know only that The Kid lives in a tumultuous home where a father furies and his co-dependent wife exists in a fragile state of denial. The Kid has been living with it all his life, and it’s left him emotionally scarred but worse, inflicted him with a deeper impression of violence that he is only now beginning to see reveal itself. His misogynistic attitude certainly stems from the home he grew up in, and his rejection of women as anything more than sexual gratification can be traced to his father. We’ve seen him coldly snub his female band member’s music, calling it ‘stupid’ and refuses to even give them a chance. Worse though is how he treats Apollonia, a girl who is infatuated with his musical act and wants to be closer. On their first date, he made (coerced) her to strip nude and jump into a lake, then teased her by thinking he was leaving her stranded. But where it really came to frightening similarity with his father is his sudden physical assault when she revealed her intention to sing for Day. She had come to his house with a gift, but it was met with violence when she announced her plan to sing. He immediately tried to win her back by telling her she was making a mistake with Day, thereby blaming her for his action.
All of this has been building up inside him. Who is he? What has he become? The shock of his actions with Apollonia truly surprised him, the echo of his father in his own hand. Seeing his father shot, he stands to one side with tears, watching the man he once looked up to struggle for life while his mother, a defeated woman still in love with a husband who beats and humiliates her, weeps at the thought of losing him. Ravaged by confusion and fear, The Kid is in turmoil, and once alone, can’t contain the flurry of emotions the ordeal unleashes.
The symbolism of seeing the chalk outline and of himself hanging from the ceiling is powerful, even though the outline itself makes no sense since the father wasn’t murdered, is still alive, and is a practice few law enforcement agencies ever use if at all. The trope is so pronounced that we don’t really think about it. All we see is death. Magnoli understands this, and uses the shape to conjure the image clearly, but more specifically, the act of suicide. ‘Father’ is a failed musician who takes out his frustrations on the only person who loves him, to the point where he has caused so much damage, he wants to end it all. The Kid sees that in himself, and in his state of madness, sees himself taking his own life. But what’s important about what he sees, is that it’s himself right now, a young man dressed in a black shroud. It’s haunting to see.
The Kid rebels against the imagery in his head and thrashes out to anything in reach. The demolition of the room says much about his growth. He is acting out against a lifetime of shame and in-action, destroying everything in hopes of forever breaking the images of his past.
The irony is the discovery of his father’s work. While we know that ‘father’ had a musical past, knowing it and seeing it are different things. Hundreds upon hundreds of pages of handwritten sheets of music are stuffed in a box and while The Kid doesn’t immediately recognize what it is at first, more intent on trashing the room, when he does understand, it settles him. And then something more.
For as long as he can remember, The Kid has always lived in dark fear of his father, a buffer of anger and misunderstanding keeping him distant, his only connection to him a growing wick of anger that had only just ignited in recent days. Now there was this: music. Hidden in this box was the passion that drove the man, an unrequited love of song that left him empty and angry. His failure to make his gift his purpose ruined him, but it couldn’t be suppressed, and so he kept his talent in a box in the shadows of the basement. The Kid is overwhelmed by the sheer volume and breadth of it all, and how good it surely is. It shifts his mindset and he sees ‘father’ in a new light. Because of this moment, seeing the terrible and wonderful parallels between him and his dad, The Kid finds a new direction, and from it comes the Purple Rain finale and a chance to be the man, the singer, the lover, and the star he is meant to be.
Albert Magnoli, William Blinn
Prince, Apollonia Kotero, Morris Day, Clarence Williams III