Directed by Albert Magnoli, US, 1984
Yesterday, I attended an outdoor showing of Purple Rain (1984) in downtown Minneapolis with about ten thousand other people. Towards of end of the title track, during one of Prince’s guitar solos, I heard the familiar “woah-oh-oh-oh” refrain, but it was out of sync with the movie. I quickly realized that it was coming from the crowd, which made it all the more powerful when the refrain from the soundtrack joined in.
In his introduction to “Man with a Movie Camera” (1929), the great Dziga Vertov asks us to imagine film as an art-form with a language entirely separate from the languages of theater and literature. This is a critical concept to understanding why Purple Rain is so popular. When judged against the standards set forth in theatrical or literary criticism – yikes. However, when the conventions of page and stage are disregarded, what remains is a masterpiece of post-modern art.
The rather thin, melodramatic plot only exists to call the audience’s attention to concepts that are embodied within Prince’s music. When he wrote the songs on the classic album that shares the movie’s title, he was certainly thinking about domestic violence, sexism, and despair. But he was also thinking about the feeling of the wind flowing through your hair during a motorcycle ride and the pure catharsis of hearing a great musical performance. Purple Rain shows us these ideas through images, but the images exist only to emphasize how the ideas are embodied in the music.
Film is a story told through images and, with due respect to Vertov, usually contains many of the same elements that exist in theatrical and literary storytelling. Even the very best movie music tends to play a secondary, supporting role in that, storytelling. Purple Rain flips that paradigm – the music is central and everything else exists to support the music. The result is a powerful work of art, which, last night, moved a grieving crowd to joy and tears and back again.
You might like Purple Rain if: You love music, and would like to see a film where music is the primary narrative force rather than playing the usual supporting role.
You might not like Purple Rain if: You view it through the lens of a traditional understanding of what makes a good narrative film.
(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe