This video essay is part of the “Cruel Summer” series of articles; this series examines influential movies from the summers of the 1980s. The previous entries in the series have covered THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980), STRIPES (1981), ROCKY III (1982), and WARGAMES (1983).
If the 1980s are considered a decade of excess, then 1984 was the peak of that excess. George Orwell’s book 1984 had already given the year so much significance that an inexplicable energy and urgency coursed through it. Reagan’s re-election was pretty much a given, a recession was ramping up, and a wave of conservative values was washing over the country. While there wasn’t yet a sense of hopelessness, there was a feeling that maybe things would get better if only we could just get through the year. All this restless energy was channeled into music. In a rare case in which the stars aligned just right, the music released during 1984 was not only the most exciting of the decade but would turn out to be some of the most endearing pop music of the next 30 years. MTV was entering its third year and had, in a sense, become the number-one radio station in the country. If you had a video in heavy rotation on MTV, you had a hit record. During the summer of 1984 you were likely in any given hour to see videos for Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” Madonna’s “Borderline,” Van Halen’s “Jump,” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want To Have Fun,” Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” The Cars’ “You Might Think,” Thompson Twins’ “Hold Me Now,” Pretenders’ “Middle of the Road,” Huey Lewis and the News’ “Heart of Rock N’ Roll,” Kenny Loggins’ “Footloose,” Culture Club’s “Karma Chameleon,” Rick Springfield’s “Love Somebody,” Deniece Williams’ “Let’s Hear It for the Boy,” Tracy Ullman’s “They Don’t Know,” John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses,” Duran Duran’s “The Reflex,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” not to mention the videos of Michael Jackson, especially “Thriller.”
The movies took their cue from the music as Hollywood entered into A symbiotic relationship with MTV, both as a new form of storytelling but, more importantly, as a powerful marketing tool to reach the coveted youth audience. Movies like Rocky III, Flashdance, and Staying Alive demonstrated the potential success for music-fueled storytelling and an accelerated editing style, but the movies of 1984 showed Hollywood going all-in on this new aesthetic. Almost any movie worth remembering from 1984 was connected to pop music. Footloose was the movie for the high school class of ’84, while Against All Odds had a power pop sensuality. Repo Man and The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai had a madcap sci-fi punk vibe, while This Is Spinal Tap deflated the pomposity of heavy metal. The raw energy of the burgeoning hip-hop scene was showcased in the (still exciting) Breakin’ and Beat Street. Even music-oriented movies that flopped had soundtracks that rocked. Walter Hill’s rock ‘n’ roll fable Streets of Fire gave us Dan Hartman’s “I Can Dream About You,” while Rick Springfield’s vanity project Hard to Hold had a soundtrack better that the movie. Disco mastermind Giorgio Moroder made Fritz Lang’s Metropolis relevant to the MTV generation by adding a modern rock score, while ALSO scoring the soundtrack to the unjustly forgotten computer romance Electric Dreams. Even big name directors got into the act, as Brian DePalma showcased Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” in his horror-porno satire Body Double while Milos Forman displayed a punk-ish attitude towards classical music in the Best Picture Oscar-winner Amadeus. But there was one movie (and record) from 1984 that would not only be representative of the entire year, but also become a cornerstone of pop culture.
Albert Magnoli’s Purple Rain is a one-of-a-kind mix of rock concert, intense drama, romance, and comedy. A star vehicle designed to showcase the talents of rock-fusion musician Prince, Purple Rain was that rare vanity project that worked. (Both Rick Springfield and Paul McCartney attempted similar movie projects in ’84, but they were a bust.) Magnoli (who had been an editor on James Foley’s youth-rebel drama Reckless) made his feature debut as a director with this film, displaying a remarkable understanding of quick-cut, backbeat-driven movie-music visuals that very few filmmakers have been able to duplicate. When pop stars attempt to cross over into movies, the results are often embarrassing. The Elvis movies are a classic example. Crummy direction and writing turned one of the century’s most charismatic entertainers into a depressing robot on screen. (With the exception of Jailhouse Rock, the Elvis movies would have been perfect for MST3K.) Performers ranging from Diana Ross to Peter Frampton to Neil Diamond all tried to translate their control of the stage to the big screen, and the results were a display of ego gone wild. Their fame as pop stars worked against them, because it caused them not to work hard enough at portraying characters. (Only The Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night displayed the kind of looseness and willingness to look silly that’s required to hold a viewer’s attention.)
Purple Rain was different. Prince was still a mystery, not yet the all-caps superstar he is today. From the movie’s beginning, when we heard a voice introducing The Revolution, followed by an anticipatory electro-synth drone accompanied by Prince’s spoken-word proclamations about life, we knew we were seeing something new, something vital. On songs like “Little Red Corvette,” “Delirious,” and “Controversy” Prince’s fusion of hard rock funk and dance rhythms was like an antidote to the polish of disco. (The music sounded like the next evolutionary step following The Rolling Stones’ Some Girls.) But Prince still hadn’t broken out. Purple Rain was his coming out celebration. Young audiences flocked to it expecting a show, and Prince delivered.
The opening “Let’s Go Crazy” number both sets the stage for Prince’s showmanship and put the story into motion. Unlike, say, Footloose or Flashdance, where the pop music was used to enhance a scene by giving it a beat, Purple Rain integrated the songs into the story. All the musical numbers are both interwoven into the story and separate from the drama, as if commenting on the lives of the characters. At times, Purple Rain plays like a rock ‘n’ roll version of Cabaret. Magnoli keeps the numbers visually arresting by using movement in the foreground to give them different perspectives. Not using a steadicam, he uses the swaying of the crowd’s bodies or the back and forth of waitresses trays to let us know life is going on even while the music plays. (Streets of Fire had a similar introductory musical number, but its song, “Nowhere Fast,” was no “Let’s Go Crazy.”)
The story of Purple Rain is almost primal, with its elements of frustration and rebellion. While the movie isn’t explicitly autobiographical, it creates a heightened version of reality; Prince and all the other performers play characters they can inform with their life experiences. The inexperience of the cast and crew affords them a cocky fearlessness, as the movie has a let’s-put-on-a-show energy, crucial to its success. The young people in the audience knew they weren’t seeing high drama. Instead, they related to the story of The Kid’s (Prince) desire to express his pain as an extension of their own similar desires. The Kid’s tentative romance with Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) is first fueled by eroticism and hostility, but soon turns into a test of The Kid’s maturity. The movie tells us that if The Kid can learn to be generous and trusting, that might be what he needs in order to become a star.
This all sounds kind of heavy, but Magnoli is wise to keep the non-musical scenes brief and direct. No dialogue-driven scene seems to last longer than five minutes. This isn’t entirely because of the inexperience of the actors, but more because the music is so powerful that the scenes don’t need to be extended. The Kid’s romancing of Apollonia happens mostly through visuals. Their first meeting is done with eye contact and the help of the camera. Their first date is when they go riding on his motorcycle as “Take Me With U” plays on the soundtrack. (“I don’t care where we go/I don’t care what we do.”) When Apollonia is being wooed by The Kid’s rival, Morris (Morris Day), he sings “The Beautiful Ones” as a defiant ultimatum. (“Do you want him? Or do you want me?/Because I want you.”) Magnoli’s editing and the hot cinematography by Donald Thorin (Thief) give each number a palpable sense of momentum. “When Doves Cry” is used powerfully in a mid-movie montage to develop characters and fill in holes in the movie’s chronology, while Thorin uses fiery red lighting for “Darling Nikki” to accentuate The Kid’s desire to humiliate Apollonia.
What’s fascinating about Purple Rain is the matter-of-fact way it presents a racially integrated world. Until Purple Rain most black characters in movies either lived in a white world, or were held at arm’s length in movies dominated by black characters. But Purple Rain presented a world where race and gender were shown in something approximating the right proportions. The explicit sexuality of the characters was thrilling, as black sexuality had been mostly chaste (Sidney Poitier movies) or presented as something mythic (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song). The time was right for black sexuality to be presented on screen accurately, and it turned out Prince was just the man to do it. The only drawback was in the treatment of its female characters. Purple Rain isn’t wholly misogynistic but like Saturday Night Fever, it isn’t entirely enlightened either.
Prince doesn’t really act in the film, more often standing still and using his presence to draw us closer to him. This is smart because his normal speaking voice lacks authority. Prince does anger and contemplation beautifully. He’s less assured when trying to be conversational. (His best scene is with Clarence Williams III, who plays his abusive failed musician father. They create just the right amount of tension, giving the scene a hushed intimacy.) Luckily the other actors around Prince are strong enough that they balance some of the movie’s shakier scenes. Wendy Melvoin is quite good in her big showdown scene with The Kid, while Billy Sparks is a natural as the manager of the First Avenue club where all the drama unfolds. Of course the scene-stealers of the movie are Morris Day and Jerome Benton. Day is like a cross between The Mack and James Brown, with Benton as the straight man for his outrageous one-liners. (“Let’s have some asses wigglin’!”) The two performances by The Time (“Jungle Love,” “The Bird”) are bumptious fun and work as welcome relief from the intensity of the other numbers. Morris is the leader of his band, but he knows to share the spotlight with his fellow musicians. That’s what The Kid needs to learn in order to go to the next level.
The movie’s final act is an extended battle of the bands, as The Revolution and The Time fight for supreme dominance at the club. The three-song set by The Revolution works as a kind of three-part movement toward the movie’s conclusion. “Purple Rain” is a spellbinding one-take performance as The Kid reconciles with those he’s hurt. (I love the moment when he kisses Wendy on the cheek.) “I Would Die 4 U” is used for the movie’s final character montage, while “Baby I’m A Star” pretty much says it all. (It’s easily the best number in the movie.)
Purple Rain is an anomaly, in that no matter how hard directors have tried, its success can’t be repeated. (Anyone remember Under the Cherry Moon or Graffiti Bridge?) It’s a movie whose title conjures up a moment in time. Purple Rain is a movie, a record, a sound. Its legacy is the audience’s wanting nothing but a good time.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.
For more commentary on significant films of the 80s, see this 5-part video essay by Aaron Aradillas and Matt Zoller Seitz for The L Magazine! Parts 1 and 2 cover 1984.