Thursday, May 03, 2007

Purple Rain

I got into the Purple Rain album recently, and that prompted me to check out the film. It’s by no means a flawless movie, but it’s got a lot of energy, and an incredible soundtrack makes it work.

I’m biased to enjoy this film because I usually like musicals, and I already loved the album, so 45 minutes of the movie are going to be entertaining no matter what’s on screen. The film opens with a performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” that’s staged with some odd cuts, and strangely made up people staring at the camera. It reminded me of Fosse, particularly the rapid cutting towards the end. The film sets its own visual style as things go on, but this song had a lot of All That Jazz in it. I’ve noticed that the really rapid cutting, as used at the end of the intro here, has gone out of style. In the 70s, that jarring style of cutting was all the rage. Lately, that extreme cutting has passed, likely because it calls so much attention to the artifice of film. Michael Bay or Tony Scott style rapid cutting works different, using a lot of kinetic movement with the cuts to give the illusion that there isn’t as much editing. Here, the editing is just right out there. It doesn’t always work, but I’d like to see this sort of cutting brought back occasionally, at times it can really serve a film.

The major issue with the film’s dramatic arc is Prince’s lack of skill as an actor. On stage, he’s passionate and overwhelmingly alive. Off stage, he comes off as somewhat robotic, never really connecting with the people around him. For a film designed to tell us his story, he seems very distant from everyone around him. I can’t think of a shot with him and his mother in the same frame. His distance from his parents made me feel like they never actually had the actors together at once, and had to shoot around that. I’m not sure why they chose to go this way, it kept us at a distance from what was going on.

And, from a narrative point of view, it’s hard to start with him already working at the club. I suppose they’re using Apollonia to do the story of new talent struggling to make it, but as it was, Prince’s arc was sort of nebulous. He’s confronted with some issues, and kind of resolves them, but he’s a rather nasty character throughout, so I was sort of torn. I wanted him to succeed, but at the same time, his treatment of Apollonia and the people in the band was so repellant, I wasn’t sure how to feel. The film really depends on your affection for Prince’s music, once he starts performing, you’re totally behind him.

The best musicals use the songs as a way to forward and resolve plot issues, and in that respect, the film is pretty successful. The performances manage to function as more than just setpieces, they comment on the narrative at the moment. ‘Darling Nikki’ is a great example of this, it’s unclear exactly what this says about his relationship with Apollonia, but it works great from a dramatic point of view. Similarly, his glare while watching her perform ‘Sex Shooter’ tells us everything we need to know about his jealousy.

Beyond the music, the thing I loved about this film was the ridiculous over the topness of their outfits. Everybody looks like a superhero. When Prince and Apollonia go out on his purple motorcycle, he’s wearing huge purple high heel boots, purple pants and a pirate shirt. She’s wearing a skin tight full leather suit. I’ve seen less ridiculous outfits in comic books, and these people are supposed to be in the regular world. Similarly, the production design on the store where she buys the guitar is fantastic over the top 80s. Some people would say that the look is dated, I see it more as some weird parallel universe where people once dressed like this. Prince’s sunglasses are another costume worth a mention, huge and very cool. I thought the costumes were great, you might not see me going around in knee high purple high heel boots, but if a costume can provide that much entertainment, someone made the right choice.

As I mentioned before, the odd staging of the scenes with Prince’s parents strip those scenes of much of their emotion. However, the end works really well. The whole movie we’ve been teased with Wendie and Lisa’s demo, the seed of ‘Purple Rain.’ With everything at a low ebb, Prince gets up and performs ‘Purple Rain.’ The camera barely moves, there’s minimal cutting, but it’s still an electrifying performance. Hearing the song at that moment, I’m totally sold on the emotion. The song itself is so epic, through sheer force of its power, it gives the movie a satisfying ending.

Yes, most of the plots aren’t resolved, but it doesn’t really matter. We wrap everything up with a great performance of ‘I would Die 4 U,’ an encore after the climax of ‘Purple Rain.’

So, this movie wasn’t exactly good, but I was thoroughly entertained. It reminds me a bit of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, where the music and enthusiasm behind the film make it a thoroughly entertaining viewing experience despite its flaws. I’d rather watch a movie like this than a professionally made prestige film that lacks passion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting review. Commenting on the look of a film, what film doesn't look dated 24 years after it was released? Have you seen "Wargames" lately? Eeesh, now talk about DATED, with its giant "high tech" computer floppy discs the size of 45s!

But I noticed that there was not one mention of the comic relief provided by Morris Day and Jerome in your review. Their two onstage performances were exciting and fun ("Jungle Love" was a HUGE hit in the 80s), and every time they appeared off stage, they were hilarious; especially the scene where they had to come up with a buzzword for when Appolonia (sp?) came to the club. Classic "Who's On First?" moment. And as mean-spirited as Morris Day was with his insults to "The Kid" (Prince), you witness the strong feelings of regret he immediately had after making one especially harsh sarcastic comment. You felt he realized that he may have let things go a bit too far with the competition, and showed he actually did have feelings.

Anyway, you are correct; as far as the film goes, we're not exactly talking "The Godfather" here. But it is arguably one of the greatest rock & roll movies ever made. And while the look of the film may be dated, ironically the music isn't.