It’s something of an understatement to note that Prince has done some strange things over the course of his career, but since these have almost all been bad ideas (replacing his name with a symbol? Releasing several dozen albums in the late ‘90s? Recording duets with Carmen Electra? Making a concept album about his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses?) one cannot accuse him of being a careerist, shrewdly calculating the commercial potential in his art and how to cash in on trends. The one and only time he was in sync with the zeitgeist—the mid-‘80s, when Purple Rain‘s tremendous popularity made him a permanent superstar—seemed to have been something of a fluke. Michael Jackson’s fame had paved the way for androgynous black performers, and MTV, then still in its early unformatted days, promoted a pop-culture syncretism that suited Prince’s flamboyant genre mishmash perfectly. And Flashdance had proved movie audiences were amenable to the MTV-derived formula of stringing together music videos and overwrought melodrama with an incoherent wisp of a plot to make movies whose chief purpose was to drive sales of the soundtrack album.
Thus, 1984 was the perfect year for Prince’s film debut, in which he played “the Kid,” a thinly disguised and surprisingly repellent version of himself coming to terms with the immensity of his own ego (he declares himself a “messiah” in the film’s final sequence), a character who is only really watchable when he is performing. It’s a testament to how powerful the concert sequences were, and how much they overshadow the rest of the film, that Purple Rain was a critical success, with some reviewers lauding it with four stars and rave recommendations. Viewing it 25 years later, unaffected by music-video fever, it is far more obvious that it’s an exciting concert film but a terrible movie. On stage, Prince is entirely at ease and in control, completely confident in his charisma as he works through his repertoire of James Brown moves and leads his band through a great set of concise, cohesive songs. It’s absurd that in the diegesis we are supposed to believe that his band isn’t drawing and isn’t killing the competition. Really? We are supposed to think that the Time, a mediocre dance-funk band led by the now-forgotten Prince protégé Morris Day, has any chance of outperforming the Kid?
But when Prince is offstage, cruising the streets of Minneapolis (dim and gray; transformed into one of those quintessential 1980s post-apocalyptic worlds where all the survivors are New Wave) on his motorcycle with his round-mirror-lens sunglasses and his toreador outfits, he comes across as a bit ludicrous and vaguely embarrassing, like when you see a Goth kid working at the supermarket. He has about all the screen presence of Jon Cryer in Pretty in Pink. Though his lines are minimized by the frequent and extensive montage sequences, he seems diminished and awkward, unbearably self-conscious. Over the course of his fumbling, chemistry-free courtship of the mannequin-like Apollonia—the film’s love interest—he relies on gestures that probably seem so natural on stage, but seem clumsy and hackneyed elsewhere.
The script, which utterly fails to live up to the intensity conveyed by the music, gives him no help; the desultory dialogue is about as convincing and dramatic as the overdubbed lines in Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” video. And the movie’s rampant misogyny is indefensible: not only is a woman thrown into a dumpster for no apparent reason in one of the initial scenes, but throughout the film Apollonia is a masochistic punching bag. When she is not jumping in a lake topless out of the Kid’s offhand desire to humiliate her, or being posed in lingerie for the audience’s delectation, she is absorbing condescending lechery from Day and literal blows from the Kid as she is batted back and forth between them. And one of the Kid’s key concessions to maturity—his deigning to perform a song written by “the girls” in his band—amounts to a backhanded compliment; we’re supposed to admire him for recognizing the song’s quality more than we are Wendy and Lisa for writing it.
Ostensibly, the film’s dramatic core is supposed to be the Kid’s relation to his father, a vaguely religious failed musician and domestic abuser who tries to commit suicide at the film’s climax. (We know this is the climax because it’s followed by an epic spazz-out that has Prince destroying things wantonly while the soundtrack swells with quasi-psychedelic horror-movie music.) But that only plays tangentially into what seems to be the most resonant issue, especially considering what was to come: Prince’s uneasy relationship to mainstream success. The key scene is when the manager of the club at which the bands play confronts the Kid about the self-indulgence of his music. “No one digs your music but yourself,” he tells the Kid several times—which is ironic, since never was this less true in the context of Prince’s career. The film even gives us a glimpse of Prince the reclusive studio whiz when he brings Apollonia to his basement, full of whimsical, Neverlandesque touches, and plays her a tape of a woman crying spooled backward. The scene, a prelude to a sex scene, may be intended to show the Kid’s vulnerability, but instead we get a sense of just how willfully inaccessible he is.
It’s clear from the film’s narrative arc that we are supposed to regard his fear of success as a character flaw that the Kid ultimately transcends, as his father, with his reams of unpublished songs, failed to. But the moral is muddled by the entirely negative depiction of Apollonia’s ambitiousness—after her successful (in the film, anyway) debut, she is risibly drunk and on the verge of de facto prostitution when the Kid bikes up to rescue her from herself. This prefigures the position Prince would stake out on his next album with “Pop Life”, but even in Purple Rain there’s an undercurrent that suggests it’s better to reject success, withdraw, and maintain an artistic purity.
It turned out that a film about the need to embrace compromises to achieve recognition would give Prince the license to be as perverse as he wanted to be in his choices for the rest of his career. Unlike with Purple Rain, Prince would seize total artistic control over his next film, the highly anticipated and backlash-begging Under the Cherry Moon, which rapidly degenerated into what by all appearances was a vanity-project fiasco. Shot in black and white in the south of France, and given a peculiar Art Deco sheen, Under the Cherry Moon attempts to be more like a real movie and less a series of music videos and montages.