Music and movies have frequently gone hand-in-hand together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.
Right away, with the sound of cheering crowds playing over the Warner Bros. shield, to an atmosphere best described as pure-1984, Purple Rain grabs you with its sense of style. Of course, this being the mid-80s, how could it not? For if there was anything that was defining the visual look of the period, it was MTV.
MTV had no direct involvement in Purple Rain, other than the fact that it was then owned by Warner Communications before they sold it to Viacom/Paramount in later years, but the film positively bleeds with a sense of stylish gloss that was a hallmark of music videos of the time.
The cable television channel played a big part in helping solidify the popularity of many musicians such as Prince during the period, something that might come as a surprise to younger audience members today who only know the channel as being the home of so many reality television shows. In fact, the visual language that was popularised by music video culture of the early part of the decade became a new way for musicians and bands to get airplay. No longer was being played on the radio or climbing high in the Top 40 a means to gain traction or cement your popularity as a musical artist – you had to have an eye-catching music video to go along with it.
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Essentially Purple Rain is, for all intents and purposes, a music video that has been stretched out to ninety minutes. That may sound like a form of criticism, and in fact, if one wanted to, they could use that as something with which to poke holes at the film. There is a story here, one fuelled by themes of abuse, love found and lost, and pursuing your dreams and making them come true. Narratively, the film falls into line with the type of storyline served by so many pop movies and films about musicians. So much of Purple Rain’s narrative threads are filtered through Albert Magnoli’s unashamedly stylish direction.
Purple Rain would undoubtedly make a great double bill with 1983’s Flashdance, and both movies are indicative of what was going on stylistically with filmmaking at the time. The influence of MTV was extending to the big screen, and with it, an overt visual style as directors of music promos and commercials brought their keen sense for eye-catching photography to the silver screen.
This wasn’t even a relatively new phenomenon; in the late 1970s, Ridley Scott made the transfer from directing commercials to feature films when he helmed The Duellists, subsequently moving from period dramas to science fiction with the even more visually stunning Alien in 1979. Going forward into the 1980s, Hollywood studios, effectively now part of larger corporations and conglomerates, started looking towards not only directors of commercials, but also those calling the shots within the emerging world of music videos to bring distinctive looks to feature films.
It might be easy to argue that some of these films were nothing more than style over substance and there is some truth in that, but they came to define a large part of the decade and still yield some influence today. Directors such as David Fincher and Michael Bay made early impacts in their careers directing eye-catching video promos for Madonna and Meat Loaf; Bay bringing a gothic approach to the latter’s video for ‘I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)’, while the former helmed the iconic video for Madonna’s ‘Vogue’.
Even already established feature film directors would bring their own wealth of expertise to music videos and the elaborate rich visuals and production styles the artform could inform. Martin Scorsese and John Landis would direct equally cinematic promos for Michael Jackson, with Landis’ work on ‘Thriller’ counting as one of the most iconic music videos of all.
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There was a sense that music videos, commercials and films were intermingling in a way. 1983’s Flashdance was directed by Adrian Lyne who, like Ridley Scott, had made his career working on commercials. With a script from Joe Eszterhas, Lyne effectively made a film that felt like a pop promo that had been stretched out to movie length, where the in-film performance and elaborate choreography were every bit as important as plot and character. Yes, there is a love story there, but they are loose connective tissue for some dazzlingly choreographed dance numbers being performed by Jennifer Beals and her doubles.
It’s an amazing looking film, even if, in the end, all of it rang very hollow. A similar sense of hollowness hangs over Purple Rain. There is a story here involving Prince’s character, named The Kid, pursuing a music career and trying to find a happy balance between writing music for himself and for his adoring audience, all the while contending with an abusive household dominated by a violent father who sees no problem in beating up his wife, an expression of bitterness at his own lost dreams.
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To watch the film today is an interesting experience. For a large chunk of its duration, it plays similarly to Flashdance, dominated by performance and choreography as much as story and character. In fact, whenever The Kid’s relationship with Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) is driving the script, or the film focuses its attention on the harsh reality of his home life and abuse at the hands of his father (Clarence Williams III), it almost comes as a jolt of reality that reminds you that you are not in fact watching a Prince concert film but a scripted piece of fiction with story and themes.
It’s best not to watch the film looking for substance or something profound to say about Prince himself, or in the journey of becoming a musician. Coal Miner’s Daughter and musical biopics in later years would do a better job in that regard, and perhaps even deal with their central character’s problematic elements in a much more concrete manner than here.
The film gives The Kid and the audience a happy ending, one awash in song and performance, some of it set to the film’s titular track which may very well be one of the greatest songs ever written. However, it feels like it also comes along in such a way to make you forget some of the toxicity that comes with the character, its central love story and The Kid’s less than collaborative nature with his bandmates.
The Revolution is played by the real-life band members themselves, in one of the many blendings of reality and fiction throughout the film. Nearly half the characters are named after the actors playing them, and we witness The Kid (he’s never called anything else in the film) treat bandmates Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman disdainfully, as they try to convince him to perform a song they have written. That song becomes ‘Purple Rain’.
For all the flashiness of the film and its performances, not to mention montages set to a plethora of great songs such as ‘When Doves Cry’, it’s a film that is unafraid to paint Prince in complex ways. Of course, the singer was in real life at the centre of accusations regarding controversial behaviour, particularly by Sinead O’ Connor who he wrote the powerful and iconic ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ for, and watching Purple Rain is to be presented with a character who is egocentric, prone to shutting down collaborations, and even physically assaults the object of his affection and has moments of toxicity that don’t play well today.
One might ask if it even did in 1984 when the film was released, but the filmmakers appeared not to have gotten the memo and a happy ending is afforded to not only The Kid and Apollonia’s relationship, but also The Father, who has the film’s titular song dedicated to him. Perhaps one shouldn’t read too deeply into it. Like Flashdance the year before and Top Gun only two years later, the film is an attitude and a style more than anything resembling a concrete, hardened narrative.
It offers moments of darkness and terrible events befalling its characters, but in the end love, hope and victory win out. It was the 80s after all, an era of weirdly conservative optimism in a decade defined by the political policies of Ronald Regan on one side of the Atlantic, and Margaret Thatcher on the other. Strife and turmoil were masked by well-delivered speeches by a movie star President, and where the hardened, cruel policies of Thatcher were forgotten about by victories in The Falklands, and nationalist pride brought about by the Royal Wedding of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer.
Such contentious political realities were offset by the more heightened leanings of pop culture of the era; one that was dominated by a higher abundance of style. Purple Rain may not be a film of great substance at the end of the day, but it’s hard not to be swept along when those electric guitar strings kick in and that voice that was so perfect starts singing the title track. It is one of the most electrifying moments in all of pop culture, something that almost makes you overlook the rest of the film’s flaws, because when it zeroes its focus on the mesmerising performances on the stage, there really is something approaching magic in the air.
Style over substance indeed, but what style it is.