West Side Story. Singin’ in the Rain. My Fair Lady. Ask any film fan for a classic example of the Hollywood musical, and these are the ideas that first come to mind. And they’d be absolutely correct; each of these classics, and more, helped define and refine the genre. The electrifying 1984 film Purple Rain thrust the movie musical into the 1980s with a spectacular dossier of rock, pop, and funk songs, all framed within the traditional Broadway musical structure.
The opening number “Let’s Go Crazy” functions as a perfect musical introduction: establishing the time, the place, and the main players all embedded in one song. Our hero Prince (playing The Kid) performs onstage with his band The Revolution, as his flashy rival Morris Day and future love interest Apollonia each arrive at the First Avenue nightclub. Small but character-defining vignettes catch us up to speed as to who they are in the Minneapolis universe, and instantly set the foundation for the drama to unfold.
The “I Want” song, a staple of Broadway musicals, appears in the same setting, sung by Prince only, but can apply to all members of the neon love triangle. He wails “The Beautiful Ones,” an unstoppable power ballad demanding, “Do you want him, or do you want me? ‘Cause I want you.”Prince sings this directly to Apollonia, and it certainly applies the other way around, as well as from Morris Day to Apollonia. Even beyond the romance itself, the potential jealousy and obsession puts Prince’s career at stake. Prince and Morris have a deep-seeded feud, and the sudden appearance of Apollonia into town might just be enough to push them over the edge. They are enemies both in their careers and in their love lives, raising the stakes to dangerously personal levels.
For the grand finale, this purple package is all wrapped up by a one-two-three punch of the songs “Purple Rain,” “I Would Die 4 U,” and “Baby I’m a Star.” After scenes of high drama and disturbing violence, “Purple Rain” is the thoughtful, mature ballad to redeem Prince and all his mistakes. This deeply personal song pierces through the club crowd and they beg for more, so he returns to the stage for the rollicking pop songs “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star.” From the audience’s reaction, it is clear that the Revolution’s future at the club is guaranteed, and Prince even shares a charming smile with Apollonia, watching from the crowd; we know they’ll work out in the end. In one extended sequence, we go from mournful and introspective to celebratory, charming, and triumphant.
What Purple Rain is arguably missing is an Eleven O’Clock Number: a big, energy-driving Act Two song to propel us through the end of the show. The film takes an extended break from music, as romantic tensions rise between Prince and Apollonia, Prince grapples with his parents’ violent relationship, and he struggles to make amends with The Revolution. The energy deflates from the film, and Prince is forced to get his life back together.
This decision is an important one, as the third act is all about Prince rebuilding himself after he’s sunk so low. He cleans up his life, focuses on his music, and opens his mind to allow in others’ ideas. The reawakening comes not from some song pulsing through him, but an internal journey and choice that only he can make. The music literally stops until he has redeemed himself.
By working in a classical musical structure, Purple Rain introduced an incredibly niche culture to a wide audience. The smoky nightclubs and pop-funk stylings of the Minneapolis Sound were just at the brink of explosion across the airwaves, and it admittedly is a unique world. The enormous hair, outrageous styles, and dripping sexuality may have seemed otherworldly to moviegoing audiences of the 1980s. It becomes easier to digest and packs more of an emotional punch when framing this world bizarre into a familiar, traditional narrative structure. Our hero, villain, love interest, and outlining the foreign landscape within a standard musical theater context, allowing a mainstream audience who’d never step foot in the First Avenue nightclub to enjoy and partake in the wonders and beauty of Purple Rain. “It’s time we all reach out for the new, that means you too.”
This blog post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon 2017 hosted by Aurora’s Gin Joint, Outspoken & Freckled, and Paula’s Cinema Club. Check out the full lineup here!