Purple Rain: A Traditional Musical with an Anti-Traditional Score

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.

hqdefaultThe 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.

tumblr_m6khz1luin1qcvaxho1_500By 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!

Weekly Round-Up: July 03-09, 2016

I can’t believe I went an entire week (June 26 – July 02) without any movies. And this week was a slow one too! I saw:

  • The Notorious Bettie Page (2005) – Very thoughtful and respectful biopic of the pin-up queen of the 1950s. The film’s greatest strength, and bravery, lies in its blending of Miss Page’s career choices and spirituality not as contradictory, but complementary in forming a complex, confident woman of the 20th century. Gretchen Mol shines in the title role. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ghostbusters (1984) – Rewatching the original to prep for the remake’s launch the following week. It’s been years since I’d seen it, so I was a little surprised by the slower-than-expected pacing as well as the dirty jokes (PG was a different time back then!), but the moments of sheer insanity are still thrilling. RECOMMENDED.
  • Ghostbusters II (1989) – First time with this one – not quite as good as the original, but there were some great laugh-out-loud gags and character interactions. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see two weeks ago?

Repo Man (1984)

Repo Man is an adrenaline-high trip that can best be described as an existentialist, sci-fi noir comedy. It was also a studio (!) movie.

The premise is insane: it’s the story of a young punk in a slummy part of LA who gets a job as a repo man, who quickly gets himself wound up in a plot about alien invasion and the threat of nuclear warfare (and tons of funKiss Me, Deadly references). The movie works because it takes an out-of-control plot and plays it for laughs. The storyline is ridiculous, and the characters treat it as such, either reacting with skepticism or fitting the caricature perfectly and fitting into the logic of the story.

In addition to all the crazy going on, there is also a complex and intelligent world created by director Alex Cox. We meet characters from all over Los Angeles, from a grungy house of punks to middle-aged losers to Mexican gangsters. It’s “slice of life” without feeling like it. We encounter these characters organically, as everyone has something at stake in this nutso plot.

Within this vision of LA, we also get some heavy existentialist themes. We quickly get the sense that, in this universe, everything and everyone has a sense of order, which is explained in a great monologue by Harry Dean Stanton’s character Bud, in what he calls the “repo code.” Even in a business which is questionable (and elevates the film to what might be an allegory on the fluidity and arbitrary nature of property rights?), the characters find logic in that which they create for themselves.

I don’t know if the movie quite grazes the level of greatness, but it is probably film at some of its most fun and eye-popping. It’s definitely better than your standard popcorn flick and actually gives audiences an intelligent yet entertaining experience. Few films are as kinetic as Repo Man and it is easy to see why it has become a cult classic.

Amadeus (1984)

This masterpiece falls within two unpopular categories: 1, it is a period piece and 2, it runs at almost three hours. Few of our generation have seen it, despite its stellar critical reception and numerous awards won (including the Academy Award for Best Picture). In my opinion, however, it is part of the elite circle of long-running films that is so entertaining the time flies by; others include Gone with the Wind and Titanic (and certainly not the almost-four hour Ben-Hur which needed immense trimming).

On the surface, it is a biopic about Mozart through the eyes of a competitor composer, Salieri, but it offers a rich commentary on fame and celebrity. F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce are perfect as Salieri and Mozart, respectively, and through the swiftly moving screenplay we see their first meeting, growing competitive natures, and ultimately forgiveness and acceptance. In one of the film’s best scenes, they collaborate on Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, and we see two masters at work: Mozart in bed, dictating the melodies and harmonies as Salieri commits the music to paper. While this situation is very likely a fictional one, it is a fascinating and engaging look at the creative process when it comes to songwriting, an art very rarely explored in the movies.

Even beyond the content, another impressive feature of the film is its style. Almost every scene is played to excess, with elaborate wigs, costumes, and Mozart’s childish and vulgar (yet hilarious) behavior. Without being as blatant as films like Marie Antoinette (2006), Amadeusmanages to feel contemporary despite its late-18th century setting.

While it is difficult to find three hours’ free to plop down and watch an epic period piece, Amadeus is well worth the effort. You have never seen anything like it and likely never will.