The Importance of Being Morris: Fop vs. Fop and Duality in Purple Rain

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.)

But wait a minute … can we get back to the clothes?

But wait a minute … can we get back to the clothes (because you know Morris would certainly want to!)?

Fashion was a big part of Purple Rain’s influence, but it also sharply defined the characters in the film. Let’s face it. Both The Kid and Morris are 80s neo-fops. They both possess feminine attributes in spite of their undeniable virility. The Kid sports a mixture of modern, Edwardian, Louis XIV style, defining his character as both regal, yet fragile. On the flipside, Morris rocks the flashy, 30s gangster-style suits and matching Stacy Adams shoes. When we’re introduced to them in the film, Morris wears a gold lamé and zebra print suit, draped in a long, white coat cashmere coat (which we later find out costs $400). The Kid is shown wearing his white, ruffled shirt and purple satin Edwardian jacket. Intentional or not, there may be some sartorial symbolism at play pitting Morris’ golden, worldly royalty against The Kid’s spiritually regal purple. If the clothes make the man, the message they send is one of The Kid’s music coming from a pure place — doing it for the music as opposed to the money. As evidenced by his frequent primping in front of the mirror and ostentatious displays on-stage and off, Morris has much more in mind than just his art.

Sure, he loves to have a good time and spends the duration of Purple Rain in the pursuit of women and cash, but whereas The Kid is merely selfish, Morris is calculating.

Business remains business and is separate from Morris’ performance onstage. Conversely, The Kid uses his pulpit to hurl thinly veiled insults in the form of songs directed at those in his life. He is passive-aggressive, where Morris, by contrast, leaves his personal business out of his music, preferring face-to-face confrontations off-stage.

Along with his trusted friend/attendant, Jerome, he plots to knock The Kid from the top of the club scene. Morris E. Day does not like to share the limelight. He talks in the ear of club owner, Billie, planting the seed that The Kid isn’t pulling in crowds like he used to. Rather than appeal to any emotional level, Morris operates purely from a business standpoint to make his case. By that token, he isn’t really malicious in his intent – just Machiavellian. In fact, there’s a sort of joyful glee about Morris when he’s outlining his unscrupulous plans and giggling to himself and with Jerome. He’s unabashedly materialistic and derives pleasure from business, as well as his artistic pursuits.

He also makes pleasure his business when he attempts to wrest The Kid’s girlfriend, Apollonia from him. It’s not so much that he desperately wants Apollonia: she’s just another conquest and another potential notch on the bedpost. He uses her ambition and goals to further his own agenda. She’s a pawn with possible “benefits” in Morris’ attempt to demoralize The Kid and get him out of the picture. By corrupting his already tumultuous relationship with the one person he can truly claim as his, Morris disrupts The Kid’s precarious sense of balance.

In order to chip away at The Kid’s relationship, Morris plays the charming devil by dangling a star spot in the all-girl group he’s formed in front of Apollonia. Notably, at one point during the film, she tells him “Your horns are showing, Morris.” This further touts his status as the designated villain in this musical morality play. With his mirror and manservant in tow, Morris Day (the character, not the actor playing the role of the same name) embodies the venial sins of greed, lust, and vanity.

Ah! Vanity! More than just the Prince-given name of his one-time muse, Denise Matthews; it’s a key component of Purple Rain, as are some of the other seven deadly sins. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to believe that even during his Purple period, Prince had a strong sense of polarizing forces of light and darkness as evidenced by his later work and spiritual epiphany.

This sentiment and Prince’s conversion was further underscored in Purple Rain‘s unofficial sequel, 1990’s Graffiti Bridge. Following an epiphany in 1988 surrounding his Black Album which was yanked after a limited run of 500,000 copies by Prince himself who believed the album to be “evil”, Prince’s music took on a much different direction. While still somewhat sexual in nature, he much more favored hymns of praise than odes to girls “in a hotel lobby / masturbating with a magazine”.

Graffiti Bridge, like its predecessor Purple Rain, was an album that was also an accompanying soundtrack to a Prince-crafted concept. This time around, Albert Magnoli’s slick, visual direction was replaced with Prince at the helm in addition to screenwriting and acting duties within the film.

In its original incarnation, Graffiti Bridge was to shed more light on Morris and The Time. Although it’s not nearly as cohesive (or coherent, at times) a film as Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge picks up where Rain left off. While present in Purple Rain the concept of duality as it pertains to Morris and The Kid is amped up even further. The film’s narrator notes that “Two souls fight. One wants money. One wants light.”

Setting the plot in motion, club owner Billie passes away and leaves his empire to both Morris and The Kid. In the years elapsed, The Kid has found himself to be somewhat more spiritually grounded, although still struggling with his inner demons. As he writes in letters to his now-deceased father, “Sometimes I feel cursed to make the same mistakes you made.” Morris, on the other hand, has given in completely to his darker, more “business-like” side. He doesn’t see the value of The Kid’s more uplifting, spiritual direction to his music and sees him as bringing down the club’s profit margin. He retreads over familiar territory by trying to gain complete ownership of their shared scene. Morris’ symbolic vilification is further underscored in a musical sequence in which he’s singing and dancing surrounded by fire (it couldn’t be more obvious than if he was given a pitchfork and a tail!).

The film reneges on its promise to flesh out Morris’ back story. Very little is revealed of his perspective except that in a telling line, he mentions that his “family never had anything and I intend to keep what I got.” Like The Kid, his upbringing and family colors who he has become and what he values. He cryptically alludes to having taken in The Kid and given him money and guidance years ago.

As both films allude, “deep down, there’s good in Morris.” Since not much is ever explicitly revealed about the character, one can only assume that Morris values not only discipline, but loyalty, exhibiting both in his personal and business relationships. As evidenced in both films, he treats Jerome as more of an equal than The Kid (initially) treats Wendy, Lisa, and the rest of his band, The Revolution (who are all gone and replaced with a new crew by the time Graffiti Bridge rolls around, while Morris’ group remains somewhat intact).

In the end of both films, tragedy that befalls the scene brings about a rare show of emotion from Morris, ultimately finding him redeemed by the transformative power of music. He may value “the finer things” and take pleasure in asserting his authority, but he does value friendship and human life. It just takes a bit more to awaken this aspect of Morris’ persona, buried beneath his own defense mechanisms and drive for success. Playing off of these brief glimpses into the character’s soul, Morris isn’t without a heart. It’s there, he just does not wear it on his sleeve as The Kid does (after all, it might clash with his Stacy Adams shoes!).

Call for Music Writers, Reviewers, and Essayists
Call for Music Writers