Let's Go Crazy and Obsessively Re-Watch Prince's 'Purple Rain'
In 1982, a 23-year-old musician sat in an Italian restaurant in Hollywood eating spaghetti and drinking orange juice. Across from him sat his manager and an obscure television screenwriter. The musician told the writer that he wanted to make an autobiographical film. In Minneapolis. Just using musicians he knew from there. In seven weeks. In the winter. And, oh yeah: the title of the film should have the word "purple" in it.
Two years after that meeting, Purple Rain, starring Prince, arrived in theaters across the country. Although the film itself garnered mixed reviews -- Vincent Canby, reviewing for The New York Times, described Prince as a "poster of Liza Minnelli on which someone has lightly smudged a mustache" and said that the "offstage stuff is utter nonsense" -- the soundtrack album for the movie was a massive success in every regard, winning an Academy Award and two Grammys, selling 20 million copies worldwide, and spending 24 consecutive weeks as Billboard magazine's #1 album. If Prince's previous record, 1999, led by its title track and follow-up hit "Little Red Corvette," had established him as a star, the release of Purple Rain and its soundtrack made him a fucking musical constellation.
Instead of another heartfelt reflection on the virtuoso, once-in-a-generation musical talent who died at age 57 yesterday, our tribute to Prince Rogers Nelson here will be much smaller in scope, and will try to answer a simple question: what the hell was going on in Purple Rain anyway?
"Ladies and gentlemen: The Revolution."
We begin with Prince (The Kid!) and his band The Revolution onstage, his silhouette backlit by spotlights. He starts playing “Let’s Go Crazy” (the first song on side one of the album) and you see that he’s at a club. Then, somewhat confusingly, you’re treated to a montage of scenes of Prince and his rival Morris Day of The Time getting ready before the club at their homes. Prince, in his famous purple jacket, blows out candles and drives to the club on his purple motorcycle. Morris in pink underwear vacuums, and then jumps into his hot ride chauffeured by his valet Jerome. Morris is great.
MEANWHILE, a pretty girl ditches a $37 cab, gets a room at a flop house across the street from the First Avenue at 7th street club, runs over there, uses the old “I’m here to see the manager” trick on the bouncer, sneaks in by shoving her foot in the door when the bouncer beats up two guys, knocks over a waitress’s tray and steps right into the greatest job interview ever:
Pretty girl: Listen I’m from out of town, I have to see the manager, it’s important. I’m a pretty good singer and dancer, maybe he could use me.
Waitress: Do you have any experience?
Pretty girl, unconvincingly: Yeah.
Waitress: Follow me.
While the waitress and the girl discuss business practices and side work, Prince has launched into one of those solos in which he sexually demeans his guitar, and the new girl is intrigued. We also learn her name: Apollonia.
Now Morris Day’s band, The Time, come on, and he’s basically Bruno Mars, except even better because his valet Jerome brings out a big mirror so he can look at himself during songs, and then they do a shimmy. Goddammit, I love Morris Day.
To showcase how normal he is, Prince comes to the bar, stares at Apollonia then stands directly behind her and puts on weird sunglasses. But his day isn’t all guitar riffs and awkwardly standing behind women: because when he gets home, his dad is screaming at his mom, and slaps Prince when he tries to break it up. This section of the movie, the apparently autobiographical stuff about his dad (a piano player named John L. Nelson who played in a jazz trio in the fifties as Prince Rogers) being abusive is powerful but bizarre, especially the juxtaposition between Prince on stage dominating versus Prince back home, not even sure if he has the strength to go in his house and face it.
But before things take too dark a turn, it’s the next day and the sweatsuit-clad club manager, whom I have no choice but to call Minnesota Fats Albert, meets with Morris Day for a little exposition theater. In the scene we learn:
1. The Kid hasn’t been showing up, and just plays a lot of shit nobody wants to hear.
2. His old man messed up his career, and ruined his wife’s too.
3. The Kid’s band members Lisa and Wendy aren’t happy, and want to leave the band.
4. If Morris Day puts together a hot girls group, the Kid is out.
5. Minnesota Fats Albert is definitely not handsome.
After an unsuccessful girls group practice, Morris and Jerome give each other two finger high fives and walk out into the street, where they agree that they need Apollonia in their girl group based strictly on her interviewing acumen. As Morris discusses classy ways to curry her favor, a girl pops out and yells at him, so Jerome, in a move that seems alarmingly all-too-common, LITERALLY PICKS HER UP AND DUMPS HER IN A TRASH CAN and then they keep on walking. What the hell was going on in Minnesota in the 80s?
"You have to purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka."
Because Prince is the only man in America who can date people just by standing behind them in sunglasses, we then find Apollonia and him hanging out. He stares at a fancy white guitar, then takes her on a motorcycle ride out to a lake, featuring many shots of the lovely Minnesota countryside. Apollonia tells Prince she’s a singer and he gets visibly upset, and hopes that “making it” isn’t what turns her on. She asks if he’ll help her, and he says no, because she hasn’t passed initiation. And you know what initiation is, friends/Charlie Murphy story fans?
“Well, for starters, you have to purify yourself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka.”
I’d forgotten he actually said that. It’s incredible. And then it’s the famous boobs scene, in which Apollonia gives middle school boys a reason to sneak into the theater, and strips down to topless. The look on Prince’s face during this exchange, as she walks towards him, seems to represent all the confusion about his androgyny in a single look: he is intrigued, alarmed and a little bit uncomfortable until she bails him out by doing a shitty cannonball into the water. And then, because Prince is kind of a dick to people potentially turned on by making it, he points out that although Minnesota is filled with 11,842 lakes, that particular one wasn’t Lake Minnetonka and pretends to ditch her naked right there and leave on his motorcycle. It turns out this is not entirely a feminist film.
"I wish you could see my home. It's so exciting."
Back in the city, Morris and Jerome play their own version of the Abbott and Costello "Who's on First" routine, but as a password for Jerome to tip off Morris that Apollonia is in the club without pissing off all of "the sexies" surrounding Morris at the time. Honestly, I have no idea how Morris Day isn’t the most successful musician/actor of all time.
Would it surprise you to know that Prince is also an extremely skilled ventriloquist? And that he uses those skills in the dressing room at the club to shoot down any chance he’ll listen to Wendy & Lisa’s song by pretending his puppet is talking? Did you know he has a puppet? And he hurts people? And there is an actual scene in this movie in which Prince’s puppet is trying to convince him all he needs is him? And then the puppet says life is a bitch? THIS IS ALL REAL STUFF THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.
Meanwhile, Morris, the finest musician/actor of our time, hits on Apollonia, and -- in an effort to impress her -- pulls out a fascinating inventory of things people from Minnesota in the 80s deem expensive and fancy, including a brass framed waterbed and a personal Italian cook with a confusing Italian name.
Prince, dressed in that gender-ambiguous style popular in the 1980s that combined the look of a 17th-century British nobleman, a punk rocker, and a woman trying to dress well for a business-casual job, sees Apollonia enjoying alcoholic beverages with Morris and uses his magical siren-esque singing powers to pull her in like a sailor onto a rock, then leaves the stage after one song, much to the chagrin of Minnesota Fats Albert.
Because he's Prince, she’s waiting for him, and he tries to get them to go to her place, but she lives in a flop house, so they end up at his place, and see his dad making out with another woman. But enough about the horrible things going on upstairs with my dad, Prince kind of says, and heads to the basement, where he manages to light between 11 and infinity candles and put on sexy music in under a minute. If you’ve always pictured a Prince love scene as him fully clothed rubbing up on the areas next to a girl’s privates while she faces away from him in her underwear, you’re correct.
"Come on, kiss the gun."
Unfortunately, there is more hitting, as Prince's dad hits his mom again. And then Apollonia tells him she’s joining Morris' girl band, and Prince hits her. And then Lisa & Wendy don’t show up for practice, and they might even hit each other, but if that happened, it was off camera. And then Minnesota Fats Albert tells him that the girls band is supposed to be good, and he doesn’t need four acts. Cue "When Doves Cry," Prince going back out to the lake, accompanied by a montage of old scenes in his mind, as he tries to calm down by mentally recalling the names of all 11,842 lakes.
When he comes home his dad is playing beautiful shit on the piano, his hands shaking. It’s a haunting moment. Prince speaks quietly, but his father basically talks in exhaled breath. For all their brokenness, they kind of share a moment. (According to this 1984 Rolling Stone profile by Kurt Loder, Prince's real father left a piano behind for his son.)
Back at the club for performance three, Prince is shirtless, has weirdly jacked arms, and is doing uncomfortable things on stage, especially once he sees Apollonia, plays "Darling Nikki," starts humping the floor, and then bails to the dressing room. Minnesota Fats Albert lays it down, “Nobody digs your music but yourself. Look around you, no one’s digging you. But, like father, like son. Your music makes sense to no one but yourself.”
What makes this particular scene more powerful, is knowing that this was an obvious early criticism of Prince, what with the hard to pin down "Minnesota sound" he developed and eventually made famous.
To make matters worse for Prince, he ends up going to the Apollonia 6 show at the Taste, where the girls are dressed in lingerie and sing a ridiculously sexualized song literally called "Sex Shooter." Sample lyric: I’m a sex shooter, shooting love in your direction. Come on kiss the gun, guaranteed for fun.
(What's even crazier is that, after this film, "Sex Shooter" became a hit single, climbing to #7 on the US Dance and R&B charts, and Apollonia 6 actually went on tour to promote it. Such is Prince's power that he could make the worst song from a joke group he created for a movie become big enough to support a tour.)
After the show, Prince knocks a drunk Morris into boxes in an alleyway (Morris: I just got this cleaned!) and implores that Apollonia get on his bike in a weirdly deep voice. Once under a railroad, he nearly hits her when she starts drinking, but doesn't! Then… he goes home and the entire house is trashed and his dad shoots himself in the head.
As Prince tries to deal with this, we reach the most fucked up part of the movie, as he has visions of himself dead hanging, and starts trashing the basement until he sees music that his father wrote. He passes out lying on the music. SYMBOLISM.
"It's time we all reach out to something new."
The finest actor of any era, Morris Day, has the first performance the next night, and he’s playing his song "The Bird" which basically just consists of him doing his Bruno Mars dancing and squawking. When Prince comes out he stands at the microphone quietly for 20 seconds as it pans to all the weird 80s people dressed in what Kurt Loder once called that “New Wave-wino” look. Prince dedicates the song to his father, and tells everyone it’s a song the girls in his band wrote. And of course it’s Purple fucking Rain.
Just a slow ballad for his pops. Dudes in the audience are feeling it, and you can tell because they start waving their hands. Minnesota Fats Albert in his Detroit Tigers cap nods his head as if to say this is the one, Prince. You are better than the Sexual Shooters. Then Prince awkwardly kisses either Lisa or Wendy on the cheek while still playing the guitar and Lisa or Wendy looks noticeably uncomfortable.
After the song, he runs out to his motorcycle but then hears cheers and knows that no sane man gets on a motorcycle while a crowd is giving him a standing ovation. So Prince goes back inside, gives Apollonia a kiss, throws several tambourines to the audience, and plays a couple more songs, as montages of him visiting his dad at the hospital and organizing his father's music in the basement with Apollonia take care of wrapping up that pesky plot.
But, as Canby says in his Times review, that's "all right, because it allows the movie to close with two successive musical numbers, which, in Purple Rain, are the only things that count."
Indeed, Vincent. Now everyone pour out a little OJ.
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Kevin Alexander is Thrillist's National Writer-at-Large, and has purified himself in Lake Minnetonka's waters several times. Follow him @KAlexander03.