1980s, Music Film

Purple Rain (1984)


Director: Albert Magnoli

By Roderick Heath

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to get through this thing called Purple Rain. Writing a few weeks ago about 80s music videos prompted me to finally check out the whole of Mr. Prince Rogers Nelson’s debut film, an unexpected smash that made its star exponentially more famous, provoked him to create what was arguably his greatest album, and earned Warner Bros great stinking wads of cash. Indeed Purple Rain is defined, justified, and sold by its offering a cavalcade of some of the most accomplished pop songs ever recorded — it feels like nearly half the film’s running time is devoted to simply recording musical performances, giving Prince unfettered freedom in demonstrating his astounding athleticism and stagecraft, capturing perhaps modern pop’s greatest master of a total conceptualised musical act at his height.

As a film, it’s rather less than a Prince, but it’s also no A Flock of Seagulls. It’s surprisingly entertaining a quarter-century later; indeed, from an era of pseudo-musicals (Fame, Flashdance, Footloose), Purple Rain is possibly the most classically shaped, a film about performance as well as including it, offering in its musical sequences a mode for its main character to express his inner self in a way he can’t otherwise. The ancient plotline of a young artist struggling against sabotaging rivals and personal demons to locate his mojo and break through, melded to a dash of autobiographical grit, works with some real intensity. Clearly under the spell of Saturday Night Fever (1977), director Magnoli fuses a carefully art-directed sense of vivid urban grit with fantastically stylised pop performing, and offers a troubled, even obnoxious hero whose skill as an artist is under the thrall of his egotism and frustration. It’s impossible to imagine Curtis Hanson’s Eminem vehicle 8 Mile (2002) without it either; Hanson’s film borrows the focused time span, the cursory love affair that results more in self-discovery than romantic bliss, the focus on familial frustration as a source of art and a retardant, and an arc that sees an acknowledged talent dip into morose decline before rising again on new inspiration.

Down on Minneapolis’ First Avenue, The Kid (the Purple One) and his band The Revolution (played, in a startling twist, by The Revolution) are attractions at a hot nightclub. We know it’s hot because it’s filled with people with glitter make-up. The band seems to have missed their window of opportunity to ascend to stardom like other exciting local bands before them, and it’s put down to The Kid’s increasing distraction. They’re stuck as subordinate to headliners The Time, led by mincing egotist Morris (Morris Day). The opening sequences lay the essentials out with cinematic fluidity, introducing The Kid, getting dressed for his act and passing by the screaming fans at the club to perform, whilst Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), a wannabe who’s just left New Orleans to seek fame and fortune (in Minneapolis?), sneaks into the club to ask for a job as a performer. The Kid kills with his set, and gets Apollonia’s juices flowing, but on his return home gets clobbered in the mouth by his father when he tries to intervene in one of his parents’ common domestic rows.

It’s a forceful moment, what with Prince, in his signature jaunty purple jacket and puffy shirt, suddenly flat on his back, brought down to earth with the rudest of jolts. It offers immediate context for The Kid’s often appalling subsequent behaviour, his distrust of romantic entanglement, contempt for relying on others, and fear of failure leading to self-sabotage. His father, Francis L (Clarence Williams III), a failed musician and composer, is consumed by raging self-loathing that finds articulation only in abusing his wife and, finally, in attempted suicide. When The Kid takes Apollonia out for a ride on his too-sexy motorcycle, he tricks her into jumping into a lake and then toys with leaving her there. Yes, he’s a real charmer, girls.

Still, Morris is worse; he has his sideman and dogsbody Jerome (Jerome Benson) shove a disagreeably shrill lover in the dumpster and plots to take advantage of the cub owner’s irritation with The Kid by creating a girl-group to take The Revolution’s place on stage. Meanwhile The Kid’s two über-lesbian band mates, Wendy and Lisa (Wendy Malvoin and Lisa Coleman), keep prodding him to listen to a track they’ve composed, but The Kid keeps putting them off delicately: “I don’t want to do your stupid music!” When Apollonia tells him that she’s going to join Morris’ girl group, The Kid clobbers her in a moment of pure rage, and later taunts her from on stage with his grim portrait of a femme fatale, “Darling Nikki.” Having successfully alienated everyone in the universe, The Kid’s day looks just about done, and then his father tries to blow his own brains out. But whaddaya know? This convinces The Kid to give up reenacting his old man’s failings. He makes peace with Apollonia, and takes to the stage to do Wendy and Lisa’s piece with his lyrics, “Purple Rain,” before slaughtering all doubt of his capacity to rock a crowd with “I Would Die for You” and “Baby I’m A Star.”

Purple Rain was conceived by Prince whilst on tour, and the original screenplay by William Blinn, a regular writer for TV’s Fame, was entitled “Dreams.” But that template was heavily rewritten before production by Magnoli, presumably to turn it into a slicker, less dramatic vehicle, and perhaps playing up Prince’s awkward, even bitchy idea of a romantic male lead, which would soon be unleashed to much less popular effect in Under the Cherry Moon (1986). Take away the music and the filler bike-riding montages, and the film would run about a half-hour. Still, Purple Rain stands up with the likes of Jailhouse Rock (1956) as a superior artist-showcase drama, mostly because Magnoli’s slick visuals and quick pacing keep broad comedy and broad melodrama in an effective balance. Purple Rain tries to get at something which would manifest constantly throughout Prince’s career, his ambivalence with fame, his delight in creating art and refusal to see a difference between the musical and performative sides of that art (as opposed to the creeds of both grunge and hip-hop that would eventually marginalise his pop style, in part because both insisted stripping away the showbiz glitz Prince mastered was the true path to authenticity), balanced by his discomfort with the postures, intrusions, and presumptions that often attend such stardom. The Kid’s constant switchbacks in behaviour and ways of relating describe this ambivalence, and it’s no coincidence that the major step the narrative makes him take in moving towards real stardom is learning how to collaborate.

Max Steiner once nixed the idea for Four Wives (1939) of having a dead composer’s piece (which Steiner would have had to have written) hailed as a failure. In such a light, Prince’s willingness to let such great tracks as “Computer Blue” and “Darling Nikki” cited in this film as evidence of his increasingly erratic talent appears pretty brave, though it’s a bit hard to swallow those assessments. Still, they work well enough as aural expressions of a man whose wits are being shredded by his anxieties and mistrust, and whilst The Kid is often a huge prick, it’s all because, he’s real, dude, not some phony! The way the songs, so familiar from the album, are employed in the film is well thought out, from “I Would Die For You” spun from Francis’s aggrieved protestation, to the soul-searching of “When Doves Cry” propelling a you’re-tearing-me-apart montage of the Kid’s corrosive concerns. Legend has it that Prince concocted that unique, bass-free song, the biggest hit of his career, overnight, after Magnoli requested something to dub over the sequence.

The concept of making Purple Rain as a virtual neorealist movie, using nonprofessional actors enacting something like a version of their own lives, was not so unique for a pop movie, for it helps capture an authentic flavour, and also draws attention to its self-dramatising. Unfortunately, it also results in some awesomely bad acting. Old warhorse Williams gives the best performance, although Day, playing his villain as a simpering, comical jack-off who’s effortlessly seduced by the rhythm in the finale, comes pretty close to stealing the film. The joke, of course, is that Day and The Times were another of Prince’s projects, as was Apollonia Six, the girl group Morris supposedly starts. That had, of course, been Vanity Six before Vanity, who was to be in the film, quit it, and a replacement had to be hurriedly located. Prince plays increasingly sullen self-involvement and mounting hysteria competently, if with a pretty immobile face, so the film fittingly only forces him to emote where it counts—on stage.

One can’t really call Purple Rain a work that captures the man in all his dimensions. Despite his hilariously ornate outfits by Louis and Vaughn Marie-France, he plays things very straight, performing some songs stripped to the waist to show off his masculine physique, stowing away for the time being the androgyny that was his favourite indulgence and taunt to square audiences. Stowed alongside it is the edgier, politicised, anti-war polemic that infused his earlier albums, like Dirty Mind and 1999, and came back with Sign O’ the Times. Purple Rain is happy to be a vintage Reagan-era fantasy of success and harmony, portraying First Avenue as a multicultural wonderland. It’s easy to make fun of some the archly onanistic imagery that’s often fit for cutting into music videos, like a love scene that looks like Victoria’s Secret catalogue, and the endless motorcycle rides. You know the Kid’s in deep pain when he stands by a lake, legs wide apart, tossing stones in the water, frowning deeply. Yeah, keep your day job, Prince baby.

Otherwise, go in without great expectations and come out with a grin on your face.

Music Film

Cinema/Pop: The Art of 80s Music Videos



By Roderick Heath

Michael Jackson’s death threw me back to the popular culture through which I first came to comprehend the world: the shiny, grandiose, pop-saturated, money-flush, yet grittier atmosphere of the 1980s. My favourite song when I was six was Jackson’s “Beat It,” in alternation with The Boss’s “Born in the USA.” Such was the ubiquity of that era’s hits that it was indeed possible for kids who had neither experienced the diplomatic niceties of African-American street gangs or the dubious pleasures of being a disaffected Vietnam vet to shout along to those epic choruses without any trace of cognitive dissonance. It was a time of such ambitions and contradictions. The lingering shades of the Counterculture were reduced to jokes fit for Family Ties. Madonna could extol feminism by stripping, Jackson could happily shill for Pepsi, and both could make these look like triumphs for the subcultures that nurtured their ambitions. That epoch met its infamous Gotterdammerung when Jackson’s Black or White video gave way to a bunch of sweaty, grotty, substance-altered teenagers dancing to Nirvana in what looked like a dreamscape high school auditorium where Freddy Kruger could turn up and begin butchery. The 90s arrived with the crash of metal in the junkyard and the ring of shattering illusions.


Everything seemed larger in the 80s, and I’m convinced today that this is as much a product of the era’s affectations as it is one of nostalgia. It’s a cliché to note that cinema has long been colonised by the aesthetics of the music video, but the traffic was hardly one-way. If films like Flashdance (1982) and Footloose (1984) were units for selling music to the public and their musical sequences rendered essentially music-video-like, discarding the relationship between viewer and staged act found in most classic musicals in favor of the synchronised pulse of music and film, then the affectations of the great 80s stars reveal a yearning to borrow the glamour, class, the awe-inspiring scale of cinematic icons. Behind this lay egotism and also a genuine yearning to prove that the pop stars of the day were the rightful heirs of the movie stars of the past. Such an ambition could make sense for someone like Jackson, who had the manifold gifts of an old-school song-and-dance man: small wonder he was pals with Fred Astaire.


There was more to it, of course. The popularity of figures like Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and Springsteen reflected once-radical perspectives, but they communicated in a new argot that was inclusive rather than combative. Many of the pop music artists of the time had grown up on and internalised the ideas and theories behind pop art, and, with differing degrees of deliberation, exploited the dissonance between image and fact, identities declared and assumed. Thus, it made perfect sense for each of them to reach towards still-powerful icons of cinematic history, and try to remake themselves into cinematic heroes, albeit with hints of irony. Jackson’s beyond-popular album Thriller is often cited as the singular example of a cultural phenomenon that defined an era for just about everyone; but that now-deceased monoculture deliberately constructed an analogy between itself and a previous one, that of the Golden Age of Hollywood. This era in pop set about constructing a vision of elitist triumphalism that was actually for consumption by the masses, but instead of being artfully constructed solely by rich, white men, it was the province of new voices on the make. Whether or not all of this is strictly responsible for the phenomenon of epic music videos that told substantial stories—or at the very least, employed staggering levels of money and creativity in reproducing cinematic effects—or if that was just a by-product of the video form’s swelling ambitions and crucial connection to the new industry, I can’t really say, but these white elephants were everywhere. I recall the news reports and atmosphere of held breaths before the debut of Black or White back in 1991.


But Thriller, all 14 minutes of it, is still a brilliant piece of showmanship, with John Landis in the director’s chair and Rick Baker on make-up, both men fresh off their mini-classic An American Werewolf in London (1981), and Landis’ The Blues Brothers (1980), which had proven both his ability to film choreography and awareness of the intricacies of pop music. It begins as a mock-horror film set in the 1950s in which Jackson and his girlfriend (Ola Ray) are stuck in the middle of nowhere after their car runs out of gas—no, really—and then Michael warns his smitten girl that he’s not like other guys. Yeah, Mick, no kidding? The full moon sees him transmogrify gruesomely into a werewolf. Only this proves to be the movie that a theatre audience is watching on screen, everyone cringing in fright except for Jackson, who beams delightedly, munching his popcorn. His girlfriend (still Ray) clings to him and then freaks out sufficiently to flee the theatre, forcing him to follow and escort her home through the dark streets, launching into the song as his half-mocking, half-reassuring ode to the pleasures of being scared. Teens could relate: this was, after all, the great age of Saturday night nooky inspired by the latest Friday the 13th film.


The clip is uniquely clever in how it constructs a narrative to suit the unusual lyrics and extended musical structure, turning the instrumental bridge, usually death for the clip director to fill out, into the climax in which Jackson turns into a zombie who takes command of a cohort of the dead and leads them in some killer moves. The song isn’t much—a great Quincy Jones synth-bass track allied to some dumb lyrics about how your man is good to hold on to when scary movies get scary—but the clip is more than just a jokey pastiche. The nostalgic cultural continuity in linking 50s innocence and 80s knowingness mainly edits out the fractious time period in between and revels in the roots of modern youth culture. The fact that Michael alternates between cuddly nice guy and threatening ghoul, gets at the heart of the complex creature and icon Jackson was. Landis matches the song’s delight in Vincent Price’s camp contribution, in which his mock-Poe lines suggest resisting the boogie is tantamount to being un-dead, with a sequence of the undead clawing their way out of the grave that’s a brilliant recreation of classic horror imagery. (The movie theatre sports posters for Price’s House of Wax (1953) and for Landis and Baker’s first collaboration, Schlock! (1972).) Then, of course, there’s the epic piece of choreography that’s the centrepiece of the clip, with its line-dancing zombies with make-up as vivid as anything from a George Romero film, and yet whose movements are sinuous and electric. The message, that Michael Jackson can make a corpse dance, was hardly arguable at the time. In the clip and in his success, Jackson is the man single-handedly corralling America’s demons into line.


The follow-up was Martin Scorsese’s even longer, more elaborate, though less fanciful clip for Bad, in which Jackson plays a young man attempting to rise out of the ghetto, but, when push comes to shove and local thugs threaten him and his girlfriend, reveals that he’s…well, bad. The videos for Thriller and Bad sport the same essential joke—the gentle, meek Michael transforming into a weirdo capable of taming hordes of zombies and street toughs. Scorsese considered Bad a legitimate part of his oeuvre, a continuation of the same ideas expressed in New York, New York (1978), where street-level grit and fantasy coalesce in a dance number that’s more embarrassingly dated than Thriller’s—so much so that it was the target of the devastating Weird Al Yankovic parody Fat.


Thriller was followed in epic, if not equal, success by Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA. Springsteen, like Jackson, was a figure of 1970s music reinventing himself—beefed up and wielding a synthesiser. But his song writing was still based in the same telling observations of everyday life and sense of working-class drama, and his tradition was still one of lefty populism. Springsteen’s clips were less inflated than Jackson’s, but he hired his own big guns: John Sayles for “Born in the USA” and “I’m On Fire,” and Brian De Palma for “Dancing in the Dark.” Springsteen’s bout of fitness nuttiness had given him a brawnier physique, and he matched this to a power-pop approach to his usual meaty fare of aching small-town frustration. Sayles’ video for “Born” is a dud, and, with its blue-collar mythos and final recreation of Annie Leibovitz’s worship-the-workingman’s-ass cover shot, probably added to the confusion between the song’s cynical lyrics and the shout-along chorus with some variety of Reaganite propaganda. But Sayles’ clip for “I’m On Fire” was a moody mini-classic that presents Bruce as a mechanic contending with the erotic promise of a rich blonde who’s demanding his services both for her car and herself; he finally shies away with his self-respect intact.


Prince would have shagged her brains out and then sweet-talked her daddy into giving him a record deal. But there’s the difference. Prince’s heroes, like Madonna’s and Jackson’s, were on their way somewhere. Springsteen’s were trying to cope with seeing the same face in the mirror every day. De Palma’s flashy Dancing in the Dark completely ignores the song’s dissonantly mournful lyrics and takes its cue from the slippery, bouncy music, presenting a faked concert performance, where a 20-year-old Courteney Cox gazes ardently up at Bruce until he finally plucks her out of the crowd and lets her dance on stage with him, thus fulfilling the dreams of every girl in the crowd. As with Jackson’s clips, it would seem like utter wankery without Springsteen’s self-mocking grin, the sense that it’s the most public and private of jokes for the most eminently average of rock idols. Prince himself was a one-man multitude, and his affectations of glam first drew him to make Purple Rain (1984), an updated spin on a 50s rock flick where a slightly fictionalised self enacts his own rise from scenester to superstar, and then Under the Cherry Moon (1986), an attempt to make a pop-arty tribute to classic glamour and screwball aesthetics. Under The Cherry Moon betrayed, like many video clips of the 80s, the influence of Francis Coppola’s pop-arty films of the decade, One from the Heart (1981), Rumble Fish (1983), and The Cotton Club (1985), with their flashy photographic effects and deliberate artificiality.


Prince’s lack of discernable acting talent hamstrung his efforts, while Madonna was able to sustain enough illusion of talent to achieve a career. Madonna’s efforts to court the status of classic stardom was even less shy. Material Girl saw her aping Monroe whilst being pursued by Keith Carradine’s initially imperious, but finally awed and boyish filmmaker, thus netting her a rich but altogether modest guy, both affirming and undercutting the song’s crass lyrics. In Vogue, Madonna rattles off a familiar litany of stars, and underlines their meaning for her—“faces on a movie screen”—a reductive instinct on Madonna’s part, but also an honest one: for most people most of the time, the star is the point. Her colossally expensive Express Yourself video recreated whole sets and iconic images out of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), creating perhaps the most ambitious fusion of pop art and pop music. The director was David Fincher, picturing a hellish, futuristic city where Madonna’s oppressed blonde is desired by both a hunky factory worker and a sleazy magnate. The worker imagines her dancing in all her trademark lingerie-clad provocation, the boss chains her up to control her, but her symbolic black cat escapes and alerts the worker to her situation. There’s an interlude where she breaks out and cavorts in a Dietrichesque suit and blonde bob, and dances in gender-bending fashion. The encapsulated tale is oddly similar to that in “I’m on Fire,” (except it presents the bottled blonde as being as entrapped as the worker male), but also its assault on gender codes is complete in the overtly industrial-queer fetishism layered upon the regulation pop feminism.


The appeal of making music videos for directors of the caliber of Scorsese, Landis, De Palma, and Sayles, and the recording artists who hired them, was in the aura of mutual reputation, and also, particularly for Scorsese and Landis, the chance to stage sequences like those in the musicals they grew up with. The conceptual clarity and unity of space, chronology, and staging in these clips is largely at odds with the opportunistic imagery of most video clips, and, indeed, the fragmentation of later musical movies like Moulin Rouge! (2001) and Chicago (2002); most directors who cut their teeth in the video clip form proved to be skilled image-makers and terrible storytellers. But an inventive talent like Fincher could expand his abilities in this short form long before taking the reins on colossally expensive Hollywood vehicles; only three years elapsed between Express Yourself and Alien 3 for Fincher. By the early 90s, the terms of reference changed in music; many cutting-edge video clips were still quoting movies, but it was more likely to be completely different fare: the surreal films of Cronenberg, Lynch, and experimental directors. That the efforts of pop artists to live up to earlier eras of cool and fuse new music with retro class and ambitions has not entirely disappeared is confirmed by a project like Outkast’s eccentric period musical Idlewild (2006), and works of outsized multimedia ambition like Daft Punk’s anime movie Interstella 5555 (2003), made with one of Japanese animation’s masters, Leiji Matsumoto. But the age of the music video as event, and the idea of the galactic superstar, died long before Michael Jackson did.