By the 1980s, the movie musical was… well, far beyond the time of transition. Since their heyday in the ’30s and ’40s, musicals had become limited to just a handful of movies per year, without a lot to choose from—Disney films for kids, pop hits designed to sell soundtracks, the occasional prestigious musical dramas, and the cheesy movies that seemed to capture everything cringeworthy of their era. For the studios financing the films, musicals were, to put it mildly, anything but a sure thing. That’s partly what makes Purple Rain such an interesting moment in film history—though it’s easy to see its significance 30 years after the fact, Purple Rain is still a weird, weird movie.
The musician pseudo-biography is a tried and true tradition for movie musicals, as it allows an easy entry point for audiences, avoiding the necessary suspension of disbelief required in other musicals where people randomly break into song. Of course, leave it to the Purple One to make his film debut anything but a standard musical. Prince plays, well, Prince, the leader of a a Minneapolis rock band called The Revolution. They perform regularly at the First Avenue nightclub, which is where hopeful singer Appollonia witnesses him for the first time. Prince and Appollonia strike up a romance, but it’s put into jeopardy when rival band leader Morris Day enlists her as a singer in his girl group—a group that is now competing for The Revolution’s spot at the club. A turbulent home life is no help to Prince, as he must figure out what is truly important in his life, and what he’s willing to fight to hang on to.
Purple Rain famously opens with a bang, a great example of what’s to come in the film—a frenetic, disjointed montage of faces and bodies in movement. It feels maybe more like a music video than a film, at least according to the traditional rules; it’s full of quick cuts and vibrant colors, never quite allowing your eye to focus on anything but the star of the show: Prince. It’s a signal to the audience that this isn’t going to be a standard biopic or musical, but that the envelope is going to be pushed, right down to the construction of the film itself.
As the cuts grow longer and timelines and story lines converge into a single location, the excitement is infectious, and Prince is introduced as an almost mythical figure. Both on screen and off, he’s a singular, unique character, shunning most of the supposed boundaries for both race, gender, and age, and defining his own. He encompasses elements of both black and white, male and female, child and adult, and, for the most part, is accepted for all of those dichotomies within the world of the film. He can wear eyeliner and lingerie and be presented an object of desire for straight women; he can childishly speak to other adults through a puppet in one scene and make sweet love to his lady in another. In Purple Rain, Prince hacks away at traditional concepts of what it means to be a leading man—which is an altogether too common challenge for leading men in musicals, where the confines of masculinity tend to be questioned much more frequently than other genres.
When he’s not challenging the audience’s ideas about the cultural norms they thought they knew (and possibly, what they thought they were attracted to), he’s engaging himself as one hell of a performer. Purple Rain‘s soundtrack is pretty consistently fantastic, spawning hits like “Let’s Go Crazy,” “When Doves Cry,” “Darling Nikki,” and, of course, the title track, “Purple Rain.” In the concert scenes, Prince is a consummate showman, with a magnetic performance style that accentuates the fun nature of the songs—and makes the film an iconic merging of music and movies.
Much like its star, Purple Rain, constantly defies the constraints of its medium, engaging elements of the music video, the concert film, and the melodrama with equal zest. All emotions are turned up to 11, whether it’s sensitivity or heartbreak, anger, or joy—which means there’s nary a dull moment throughout. And, much like the Depression-era film heroines lounging in silks and furs before him, I’m a fan of any film that elevates luxury to an unquestioned, natural state—and Prince certainly accomplishes that.