To judge Purple Rain as a piece of cinema is to miss the point completely. This was not a film destined for Oscar greatness (though Prince would receive a gold statue for the music in the film), nor for film studies courses nationwide. The acting – if it can be called that – is amateurish, the story is weak and the dialogue is clumsy.
But this film is about one person – Prince. And it is Prince, through sheer charisma and musical ability, that makes Purple Rain a permanent landmark in pop culture history.
Prince plays "The Kid," the lead singer and songwriter of a band called the Revolution. He plays the First Avenue with two other bands, including rival The Time, led by the charismatic Morris Day and his man-servant Jerome. But the Revolution's act is getting stale, Day says, and it might be time to replace them. Meanwhile, The Kid falls for a beautiful new singer, Apollonia, and struggles through a tough home life with an abusive father (Clarence Williams III).
The "plot," as it is, never quite comes together. The main story is set up to be the Revolution's struggle to stay at First Avenue, but the consequences are not developed. If the band has to leave, will it break up? Aren't there other clubs in town it can play? The main plot suffers because of the attention paid to the love story (the film's best story moments) and the abusive father.
The musicians play themselves throughout the film – the only actors that receive high credit billing are The Kid's parents, Williams and Olga Karlatos. Watching people like Wendy and Lisa or Jerome Benton try to act is enough to make one appreciate Mariah Carey's thespian skill.
But that's not what the film is about. It is about the live performances from First Avenue, which cinematographer Donald Thorin captures with an energy rarely seen on film. It's about a time and place in history – Minneapolis, mid-80s, at the creative peak of the rock/R&B fusion.
But most importantly, it is about Prince, his music, and his personality. At this time in his career, Prince could do no wrong. His sound was fresh and original, he was upping the bar for what was expected from pop singers (he wrote the lyrics and music, he produced, he controlled everything he could about his releases) and he was bringing people of all races, religions and creeds together. Purple Rain was what turned Prince into a megastar. No matter what one thought of his falling-out with Warner Bros., his turn towards evangelical Christianity, or his general bizarre behavior for the last decade or so, it is tough to argue that early Prince was anything short of genius.
In order to truly appreciate the work Warner Bros. did on the re-release of Purple Rain, I popped the first DVD release of the film into my player.
First (and most importantly), the new version is in anamorphic widescreen, not the pan-and-scan of the 1997 release. Right there, that's enough for an upgrade. The colors are also much sharper in the 2004 edition, which is vital for a film as incredibly vibrant as this. More detail is also discernable in the shadows; on the original transfer, it was difficult to figure out what was going on in many of the darker scenes.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital track is so much more active than the similar track on the 1997 release. The rear speakers are busy throughout the film, to the point where, in the nightclub scenes, it feels like you are in the front row at the First Avenue club. Also included, but not reviewed, is a mono French track.
Before exploring the extras, a quick note: The sheer amount of extras on this release of Purple Rain would normally justify a five-star rating. But, through no fault of anyone in particular on the production side of the disc, Prince does not take part in the release.
In the early 1990s, there was a contract dispute between Prince and Warner Bros., his longtime label. Prince wanted to release his albums quicker, getting more of his product out on the shelves. At one time, he was said to have over 1,000 unreleased songs. Warner Bros. balked, worrying about burnout and quality control. Prince changed his name to a symbol and started writing "Slave" on his cheek when doing WB-mandated media appearances. So, it's not a surprise that Prince would not want to contribute to a Warner Bros. re-release of Purple Rain.
This is akin to Kevin Smith not doing commentary on Clerks or Terry Gilliam not giving any new information about Brazil. This is Prince's project, and while he did not write or direct it, the entire film and process centered around the diminutive R&B star.
Warner Bros. did its best to fill out the two discs, though. On the first one, there is a feature length commentary with director Albert Magnoli, producer Robert Cavallo and cinematographer Donald Thorin. There is much back-slapping all around, but precious little actual insight.
The first disc also includes trailers for Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge. The latter two have also been re-released recently on DVD, though both certainly pale in comparison.
The second disc contains four short subjects. "Riffs, Ruffles and a Revolution" is a ten-minute tribute to "the lasting legacy that Prince and Purple Rain had on a generation." That tribute contains exactly one tribute from a relevant music artist today (Macy Gray, for all of ten seconds). The rest of it is people involved in the film bragging about its impact, without concrete examples of said impact. It is a huge oversight, and one has to wonder if the acrimonious split between Prince and Warner Bros. made some artists pass on the opportunity to be involved in a Warner Bros.-funded tribute to the film.
"Purple Rain: Backstage Pass" is a half-hour documentary about how the film came to be. It does a good job of exploring the film's path to completion without overlapping too much with the commentary track.
"First Avenue: The Road to Pop Royalty" focuses on the club in Minneapolis that became the epicenter for the "Minneapolis sound," the funk/rock fusion that Prince helped to develop and establish. While some of the claims made about the club's nation-wide influence sound a little far-fetched, it is a good look at a local music scene other than New York and Los Angeles – a rare treat.
"MTV Premiere Party" is exactly that - 28 minutes of MTV coverage of the Purple Rain premiere party at the Palace in Los Angeles. Dig the hairstyles. The interviewer (he gives his name at the beginning, but it's near impossible to make out) is awful, the celebrities interviewed treat him like a pest, and about ten minutes of the running time is taken up by two music videos available elsewhere on the disc and the trailer. It's good to have for the sake of a complete record of the film, but not actually worth watching.
Then, there are the videos. Eight are included overall, including five Prince songs (Let's Go Crazy, Take Me With U, When Doves Cry, I Would Die 4 U/Baby I'm a Star and Purple Rain), two songs by The Time (Jungle Love and The Bird) and even one from Apollonia 6 (Sex Shooter). Some are actual music videos, others are just the song performances taken from the film.
This is not a brilliant movie. This is not the strongest story, the best example of coherent storytelling or (certainly) the best acting. But when it comes to pop movies and capturing a feel and sound of a subculture, Purple Rain cannot be matched. With this new release, Warner Bros. has done justice to a truly unique film.