Singing in the Rain
Purple Rain Directed by Albert Magnoli At the Harvard Square
IF Purple Rain were the "classic love story between a struggling musician and a beautiful singer dancer" its publicity insists on, it might as well join this year's slush pile of sensitive adolescent nonentities in leg-warmers and dance shoes. But if you accept it as a celebration of pure sleaze music, transcendent narcissism, and of course Prince. Purple Rain reveals consummate nerve and an unnerving energy level. Though laden with a number of obvious flaws, Purple Rain somehow rises above all that murk--that kid from Minnesota just may be on the way to doing for leather, sweat and narcissism what Warhol did for the Campbell's Soup Can. Neither is nice, but they may be art.
Purple Rain's barely disguised protagonist is Prince as Prince--alias the Kid, a Milwaukee post-adolescent with a decidedly un-Midwestern penchant for the badder things in life. Supposedly modeled after the friends' garage where the young Prince carried on his musical and sexual experiments, the Kid's room looks like Jodie Foster's den in Taxi Driver.
The movie opens with a sweat-dripping scene of the Kid and his band "Revolution"--who are dressed like an amalgam of Errol Flynn and Donna Summer and make Bette Midler's antics look angelic--onstage at the First Avenue Club & 7th Street Entry, a Minneapolis club where Prince also used to play. In the middle of "Let's Go Crazy," enter Apollonia, a New Orleans singer trying desperately to make it in the business. While success continues to elude her, she soon finds both the Kid and his worst enemy, the smoother-than-oil, quintessentially villainous Morris Day, hot on her trail.
Apollonia Kotero as Apollonia manages to carry off a remarkable yardage of black leather and five-inch heels without coming across as a cardboard pin-up. Supposedly ambitious and bright, she is also quite vulnerable, particularly in her relationship with the Kid, a seductive imp who insists on a Kid-centered universe and turns nasty when his supremacy is threatened. The love between the two frequently reenacts the relationship between the Kid's parents, a failed-musician Black father whose frustration leads him to beat his white wife viciously. When Apollonia announces that she plans to accept a place in Morris's band, the Kid slaps her, and she walks out--as do the girls in his band, tired of the Kid's boundless megalomania--all to the tune of "When Doves Cry." The crisis is heightened by the Kid's father's suicide attempt. The movie reaches its climax in a musical High Noon against Day and company--a battle that will seal the Kid's musical as well as personal future.
THE CLASSIC hero-villain conflict of the movie is, however, somewhat problematic. Morris Day and his sidekick--ex-roadie, ex-football-player Jerome Benton--are hilarious as a self-caricaturingly "sharp" twosome, complete with Abbott and Costello routines. They enjoy dressing up, abusing women--in one of the first scenes they dump a troublesome one into a trash can--and being generally vicious. The Kid spends his time dressing up (though in spike-heeled white boots rather than two-tone shoes), mistreating women, and being generally misunderstood and abusive. Quite a contrast.
Within the movie, the protagonist is, presumably, absolved by his stark beginnings; he can't help recreating the domestic inferno of the parents. Unlike Morris, he thinks about his own viciousness and suffers for it. At the end, he even makes a couple of concessions--a possible sign of the "learning to deal with his anger and vulnerabilities" the movie's publicity promises. At the end, however, the Kid's epiphany--concerning love, tolerance, sacrifice or whatever--is not the focus of the movie. The plot's supposed resolution comes when its hero turns momentarily nice, as he allows the girls in his band some of the credit and dedicates a song to his father. The audience is rapt, Apollonia returns, and the band is, once again, utterly submissive.
But the real ending consists of the next five minutes, with Prince and nothing else at the limelight--an appropriate conclusion for a movie that, in spite of occasional digression, is an extension of Prince's persona.
On that level, Purple Rain works. The stage struts, the soundtrack--in itself worth the price of admission--and the high-camp, high-kitsch style create a spectular vehicle for Prince. The trappings and antics make for an entertaining change from smoother, more packaged summer fare. What one thinks of Prince, of course, is a debatable question of taste. The teenyboppers on my left, breathing heavily one minute, running for popcorn the next, "really, really loved him." The friend on my right looked pensive. "You know," he mused, "if Oscar Wilde were alive today, I think he'd be Prince."