I’ve seen Purple Rain more times than I can count and every time I have a giant smile on my face. It’s not perfect. I recognize that some portions of the movie are VERY dated (which is part of its charm) and it has its problems. It won one Oscar for a now defunct category, but besides that the problem with saying Purple Rain is one of the greatest movies ever made is that it's not supported by any facts except my absolute love for what is on the screen. The facts are that it is not one of the greatest movies ever made, but I can prove something to you without a doubt: Purple Rain is one of the most unique and special achievements in the history of film, one that we will probably never see again.
When putting Purple Rain into a modern day context, it is an amazing accomplishment that it ever even got made. While Prince is the entire reason Purple Rain exists, he is also one of its biggest hurdles. In early '80s Prince was starting to cross over from being a musician for mostly African-American audiences into mainstream music culture. He was riding high from the 1999 tour, and inspired by a few overlapping tour dates with Bob Seger, was looking for a platform to debut a more “rock” sound. With the overwhelming success of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Prince spent the better part of a year writing down ideas for a movie starring… him. That’s right. A musician with absolutely zero acting experience wanted the lead in a feature length movie to catapult him to superstardom. Adding onto Prince’s lack of acting experience was the problem that Prince doesn’t do interviews. For a 15 month window surrounding the theatrical release of Purple Rain, Prince did exactly zero interviews. Just think about that for a second. In 2016, someone like Taylor Swift is in a movie and does not do a single interview in promotion.
Where Purple Rain needs to work, it shines by walking a strange line between biopic and fiction, music video and cinema. When you break down aspects of the movie it plays on its strengths and never loses site of its reason to exist, and that is to propel Prince to superstardom. The first surprise in the movie is Morris Day, who arguably steals some of the spotlight in this movie. Morris is an incredibly likable douchebag. At one point Morris and his sidekick Jerome throw a woman in a dumpster and I find myself forgiving it because he’s just so damned fun. His performance is only overshadowed (barely) by that of Prince and his character has these incredible moments where “Movie Morris” breaks character to become a very real and lieable person. But choices like these just add to weirdness of the movie. Everyone involved in the movie wants the audience to believe this is a true story, and injects enough truth that it becomes believable. During the filming of Purple Rain, Prince and Morris Day were actually at odds. Prince owned Morris Day and much of his music, an arrangement that started to go sour to the point that Morris Day had to get a ticket from a friend to attend the premiere.
Through all the storylines, the thing that really is remarkable about Purple Rain is the music performances. Love or hate Prince, he is arguably one of the greatest performers of all time and Albert Magnoli knows it. Every single song on the Purple Rain album is featured in the movie and of the nine songs on the album, six of them are played and performed almost in their entirety. Add on two from Morris Day, one from Dez Dickerson and one from Apollonia, you end up with almost a third of Purple Rain essentially being a music video. Again, think about that in a modern context. While the idea of a movie where a third is music performances sounds dull, it carries the movie. I have found myself on occasion watching Purple Rain on cable and walking away during the plot, only to stop what I’m doing the second Morris or Prince picks up a microphone. Everyone involved in Purple Rain has just enough fingers to plug the holes and the movie is written and shot to play on its strengths. When faced with a lead that can’t act well, they write a script that doesn’t have him talk much. If the star doesn’t appeal to white rock fans, make his mother white and end it with a rock ballad. If the story gets dull, fill it with music. Everything about Purple Rain serves its purpose.
With the way technology has transformed media, the type of ruse Purple Rain pulls on the audience would have trouble succeeding in 2016. With the record industry in the state it’s in, that leaves things up to Hollywood, and Hollywood would never take a risk on something as unproven as Purple Rain. There is a beauty in the risk and even more beauty in its success. It works in every measurable aspect of what it set out to do. It took a rookie director, two lead actors that never acted a script inspired by notes, a third of a movie as one long music video, and turned it into not only a successful movie, but one that is still beloved by millions -- all while accomplishing its singular goal of propelling Prince’s career. You don’t need to like Purple Rain, but it achieved something special, and should be remembered and appreciated for what it is.