When one thinks of deep, philosophical thought-provoking films, Purple Rain hardly springs to mind. On the surface, it all seems very superficial: the high-gloss patina of its music video-inspired cinematography, the glorious costumes and coiffures epitomizing the height of Minneapolis club life circa 1984, etc. It all seems like a self-serving display of pomp and circumstance as concocted by Prince in this semi-autobiographical tale to showcase his ample talents.
Beneath the surface, however, there is much more at work than just the dazzling array of images put forth and set to song in Purple Rain. The soundtrack itself covers a wide variety of territory from telling a simple story (“Darling Nikki”, “The Beautiful Ones”), to balls-out swagger (“Baby, I’m a Star”), to layers of meaning hidden beneath a veil of cryptic (and curiously colorful) lyrics (“Computer Blue”, “Purple Rain”). All of these emotions and aspects of the human condition conveyed in the film colors Purple Rain as something of a morality play for the ‘80s, albeit morality shown in shades of grey ... or purple.
The film’s main protagonist played by Prince, known simply as “The Kid”, isn’t your traditional hero. There are aspects about his persona that are simultaneously endearing and hard to take. On one hand, he’s charismatic, talented, and charming. On the other, he’s selfish, insecure, and overly-controlling. As the song, “When Doves Cry” elaborates, The Kid may be—like his father—“too demanding” and “too bold”. Much of The Kid’s positive and negative traits mirror those of his father, a former Minneapolis scene musician known as Francis L. (Clarence Williams III) who had squandered his talent through his own arrogance. In turn, Francis takes his frustration out on his long-suffering wife, The Kid’s mother (also a former singer/musician who came under her husband’s influence), a frequent victim of her husband’s domestic abuse.
On a personal level, The Kid battles with himself, trying to stave off the influence of his home life. He continually comes to his mother’s defense when his father argues with and beats her, often throwing himself into harm’s way. Yet, at the same time, The Kid thinks nothing of cracking his girlfriend, Apollonia, five across the eyes whenever she defies The Kid’s wishes and attempts to further her own musical career.
On a professional level, The Kid is constantly at odds with himself in attempting to achieve greater fame. Already famous on the club scene he dominates, The Kid is one of the big fish in the pond and may want to take it his band, The Revolution, to a bigger, national stage. Again, he may be his own worst enemy. His arrogance and dictatorial nature alienate him from his well-intentioned bandmates from whom he demands sycophantic devotion without valuing their individual contributions. As a result, The Kid ends up breeding resentment, hurt, and invalidated feelings among his friends in The Revolution.
The concept of “man vs. himself” is an intriguing one, but for dramatic and film purposes—particularly a stylistically shot, rapid jump-cut laden film like Purple Rain—inner turmoil and self-destruction alone just don’t cut it.
In order to have a true morality play, you need a villain to serve as the hero’s foil. The Kid is something of a petulant brat (although much deeper issues are at work for this defense mechanism) with an overabundance of self-confidence. In order to make The Kid a more palatable hero, Purple Rain needs a villain, a physical opposing force to bring forth the hero’s good qualities.
That’s where Morris Day comes in.
The character of Morris offers a sharp contrast to The Kid, yet mirrors many of the same traits. Both are charismatic and talented, yet incredibly vain and arrogant. They battle for the same girl and battle for domination of the same club on the same Minneapolis scene. They’re cut from the same cloth with the same passions, but view the world in different ways.
The two characters share a similar trait of narcissism. They’re both a pair of preening pricks, yet extremely likeable in spite of themselves. The Kid may know that he could have any woman in the club that he wants by either slyly smiling at them or playing it icily cool, but Morris makes a blatant display of his vanity—going so far as to incorporate it into The Time’s stage show. His friend/attendant/minion, Jerome, funkily prances onto the stage during their set to offer Morris his gilded mirror, prompting him to bust out a comb and style his pompadour for the crowd.
Offstage, Morris blatantly propositions numerous women before openly insulting them with hilarious put-downs. In a scene played for humorous effect and as an insight into Morris’ character, he thinks nothing of sicking Jerome on one of his cast-offs who appears seemingly out of nowhere to berate him. Morris responds in kind by having Jerome dispose of the loud-mouthed lady in the nearest dumpster, deadpanning his disapproval with the inimitable line: “Lord! Such nastiness.”
In the opening moments of the film, The Kid is shown in full regalia, studiously applying his eye makeup without so much as a smile. By contrast, Morris is shown wearing a rather plebian tank top, head rag, and boxers while vacuuming his pad. Even while going about humdrum chores, Morris is giddily eyeing up his neatly-pressed club suit hanging on the door, posing with it on the hanger in front of him in the mirror and cackling to himself at what prospects may come as he’s wearing it that night. His appearance is nearly cartoonish and you can almost see him twirling an invisible Snidely Whiplash mustache marking him as Purple Rain‘s villain.
Morris Day ‘s comedic timing (particularly in his scenes with the equally good Jerome Benton) is genius. Together, the duo provide much of the film’s humor, and making Purple Rain entertaining on numerous levels.
Pegged as a natural by the acting coach brought in to coax better performances from the cast of acting amateurs, Day adds a jolt of comic relief to an otherwise dry film rampant with wooden acting. Morris is total camp and plays it to the hilt! He exudes a take-no-prisoners joie de vivre and imbues even the most mundane line with character. (“You should see my home. It’s ... so exciting!”) While there’s something comical about Morris doing his housework in his skivvies (which begs the question, where was Jerome and why wasn’t he vacuuming!?), in spite of his clownish exterior, Morris is not inept, nor is he one-dimensional.
Although they share the same passion for music and performing, the contrast between the protagonist and antagonist’s bands speaks volumes about their respective frontmen. The Time’s music in Purple Rain is all about dancing, partying, and the superficial. Dissimilarly, The Revolution’s music is much more introspective and personal. (This personal, possibly self-cathartic aspect of The Kid’s music may corroborate his hesitancy to relinquish songwriting duties to his bandmates, Wendy and Lisa, who continually offer him their material.)