Dig If You Will the Picture: A Few Thoughts on Seeing 'Purple Rain' 31 Years Later
Nobody digs his music but himself?
Last Thursday, P and I went to see a showing of Prince's “Purple Rain” at Central Cinema, a fun, dine-in movie theater in Seattle's Central district. It was part of the “Movies in Black & White” series that my friend Jason Lamb hosts in Portland and Seattle. And yes, “Purple Rain” is not in black and white (it's in purple), but that's not the point of the series. The point of the series is to screen movies that lead to racial discussions. Tough thing to do. There's always a lot of posturing in racial discussions. No one these days wants to be Bull Connor. Or even Laurie Pritchett.
Anyway, I didn't really talk much during the post-screening discussion, which turned less on racial matters than gender matters. A lot of misogyny in the film: girls tossed in trash bins, hit, stripped, ignored, etc. This attitude, in fact, is the thing that needs to be overcome in the film. At least that's what the Kid needs to overcome in order to become a success. He's one of four acts at First Avenue in Minneapolis (the club I went to growing up), and he may be on his on his way out. As the club owner, a fat black dude wearing an ugly Detroit Tigers cap, tells him, “Nobody digs ye music but yeself.” But then the Kid opens himself up to collaboration with bandmates Wendy and Lisa, and he sings “Purple Rain,” which they wrote, and that brings the house down. And he finally becomes successful.
Here are the two objections I have with that story arc:
- It's bullshit. The notion that becoming less selfish and more inclusive leads to success is a tired Hollywood trope that is rarely if ever borne out in reality.
- The first song we hear the Kid play is “Let's Go Crazy,” which is one of the greatest rock songs ever written. It's also the music nobody digs but himself. Which is ... crazy.
It's really the second objection that I could never wrap my mind around. Just how dumb is that club owner? How dense are the flat-footed kids of First Ave not to recognize one hellbent, balls-out, rock-n-roll song?
Other thoughts on the film 31 years later:
- The First Ave in the film was a lot more racially diverse than the First Ave I went to in '83 and '84.
- A lot of early-MTV sexism. At the same time, Apollonia. Good god, girl.
- The only real actor in the film was Clarence Williams III, Link from “Mod Squad,” who played the Kid's father. He has a stillness to him. Everyone else was a B actor at best. But Morris Day was fun.
I do think it's funny seeing Prince all duded up—hair a tower of curls, shirt ruffled, suit as purple as the Joker's—tooling around the scabby Minnesota countryside on his motorcycle as if it's the most ordinary thing in the world. Naw. Minneapolis has a touch of the Amish in it. We look askance at anyone calling attention to themselves. We're Bud Grant on the sidelines, Garrison Keillor on the radio, Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale coming in second and smiling in presidential races. Prince's outlandishness was probably in reaction to all that. No wonder he wanted to go crazy.
Overall, the music still rocks but the movie hasn't aged well. It's kind of astonishing to remember that not only was it a huge box office hit—knocking “Ghostbusters” out of the No. 1 slot at the end of July 1984, and grossing a total of $68 million, or $165 million adjusted—but it was a huge critical hit, too. Both Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel included it in their top 10 movies of 1984.