Purple Rain

February 9, 2011

“Dig if you will, the picture….” Well, I did dig the picture, but a funny thing happened on the way to the theater. I don’t read reviews of movies before I see them, but a guy can hardly help reading the critical quotes in movie ads. I didn’t catch up with Purple Rain until its third week or so, and that’s three weeks of seeing “not since the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night” (Kurt Loder said that in Rolling Stone) prominently featured in the ads. As it turns out—I just checked it again—Loder seemed to be suggesting that, not since AHDN had a young generation been represented on the screen with such force. He wasn’t saying that Purple Rain was artistically equivalent to the Beatles-Richard Lester movies. But I didn’t know that, and I walked into the theater thinking I was in for some pretty hot spit.

Well…don’t get me wrong, I did not dislike Purple Rain, but Lester and the surviving members of the Fab Four certainly have nothing to worry about. Rock star Prince seems to have guided most aspects of this production, which—although he takes no screenwriting credit—is loosely based on his own life. From the evidence, we can conclude that Prince has led a life, uh, off the beaten path. His preoccupations have been poured into a creaky, corny story that is structured rather shrewdly (a bunch of elements are built up throughout and then resolved during the big finale). Unfortunately, the film seems to have been jotted down rather than directed by first-timer Albert Magnoli.

Luckily, lapses in directorial texturing are nicely made up for by the people onscreen. Patty Apollonia Kotero, who has wonderful laughing eyes that will probably be ignored in favor of her other attributes, has a lot of good instincts. And Morris Day, lead singer of the Time, is a precious comic find, with the timing and presence of a movie natural. Prince himself is not quite as comfortable with the camera in his dialogue scenes, and he has a tendency—but this is Magnoli’s fault, too—for resorting to an easy smirk as a way out (which is pretty funny the first few times he uses it).

Purple Rain often threatens to fall apart, but there’s always a live Prince number to be performed, and when it comes to the stage playing, Prince really does own the movie. The last couple of rave-up numbers are sensational, and it’s very easy to forget about the film’s faults on the way out of the theater. This movie has Prince’s band, playing themselves, and they exist in an amusing deadpan mode; it’s also got Clarence Williams III, who was Linc Hayes on “Mod Squad,” as Prince’s abusive father. And it’s all shot in Minneapolis, which makes it even funnier.

First published in The Informer, August 1984

Was this the last time anybody referred to Apollonia by her full name? Further research is indicated. The movie was notable (or should be) for being something of a career re-start for Clarence Williams III, as least on screen, and a welcome one, too. Not much to say except that it was a complete pop-culture pheenom moment, one played one’s copy of the soundtrack album out (but 1999 even more), and the whole thing led to Under the Cherry Moon, which put a wrench in Prince’s career as a filmmaker. It was fun while it lasted, though.

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Under the Cherry Moon

November 28, 2010

The most ridiculous marketing decision in recent memory was made by somebody at Warner Brothers, who had the bright idea that, since Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra and Prince’s Under the Cherry Moon were both aimed at the youth market, the Cobra crowed would respond to a Prince preview trailer.

So the Cherry Moon preview, featuring the primping rock star prancing across the screen with his naked belly button, was attached to all 2,000 or so prints of Cobra. Machismo audiences everywhere have been unanimous in their derision ever since, making uncivilized noises and impolite suggestions wherever Cobra plays.

Prince really didn’t need the trouble. He’s made enough for himself with Under the Cherry Moon, which looks suspiciously like the kind of movie produced when people who don’t know how to make movies are allowed to make movies.

Prince earned this right through the huge, and unexpected, success of Purple Rain a couple of summers ago. That film, inexpensively made, played with Prince’s autobiographical experiences in Minneapolis and included a heaping helping of lively concert footage. It wasn’t much of a movie, but it had a lot of vitality and a slew of magnetic actors.

Anyway, it made a bundle. So when Prince decided his next film would be set in southern France, contain little concert material and be shot in black-and-white, apparently Warners just said, “Okay, Prince baby, you understand these young people. Here’s the money—do what you want.”

This is how disasters happen. After a bit of shooting, Prince dismissed the director, Mary Lambert, over artistic differences. Then he took over direction himself. Little warning bells should have gone off; apparently they didn’t.

Warners previewed the finished film, got bad audience reactions and gave Prince more money to reshoot some material.

The final result is every bit as incoherent as that troubled history would suggest. It’s also, at least in the first half hour or so, much more interesting than you might expect.

The plot is nothing—a fable (a fairy tale, as the film’s “once upon a time” introduction makes explicit) about a gigolo (Prince) who finds true love in the form of an heiress (Kristin Scott Thomas) whom he had originally set out to fleece. The subject matter and moral of the film deliberately evoke the sophisticated Hollywood romances of the 1930s—ergo the black-and-white.

While Prince employs his lewd smirk, and there’s some double entendre banter with his partner in gigolo-hood (the funny Jerome Benton, who played the valet in Purple Rain), there’s a surprisingly soft, traditional moral here, about love and commitment and all that.

In fact, Prince, for all the ire he’s raised from congressional wives about the nasty bits in his songs, seems attracted to touchingly naïve themes in his films. He even touts religion, including a message at the end of the credits that says, “Love God & May U Live 2 See the Dawn.”

Much of Under the Cherry Moon makes about as much sense as that. There’s some tasty atmosphere in the early scenes, perhaps due to cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and production designer Richard Sylbert, both class-A talents.

Then it falls apart. Even the songs, except the great single “Kiss,” aren’t up to snuff, and exists largely as backdrop. I’m afraid this Moon will sink below the horizon even faster than Cobra. Actually, Warner Brothers was right: they deserve to be together.

First published in the Herald, July 5, 1986.

I wish this movie were better; it would’ve been great to see Prince do something so absolutely lunatic and have it come off. However, give the guy some credit for having Kristin Scott Thomas in her first feature. The reference to “congressional wives” was about the formation of the Parents Music Resource Center, which Tipper Gore and a few others had created not long before this review was written (Mrs. Gore had heard the Purple Rain album with her daughter and felt horror, or felt something, anyway.) I don’t really know if Prince “dismissed” Lambert, because she has said she left voluntarily; Terence Stamp also walked off the movie. As for the Cobra connection, I don’t remember that at all.