Purple Rain is an Effed up, Complicated Movie

Seems I’ve lately been drawn to popular media I was too young for the first go-round. (See also: my recent coverage of sex, lies, and videotape). As part of that kick I watched Purple Rain in its entirety for the first time. Turns out that was apropos, because my new album is about toxic roots, and movies don’t get much more ABOUT THAT than Purple Rain.

I was always vaguely aware of Prince, mainly as a fixture of what I saw as cool-kids culture, of which I existed on the margins. Still, I had no particularly negative connotations, given that Prince had always struck me as that rare freak whom the mainstream somehow gave a pass. A middle-school classmate of mine, T.C., was a particularly vocal fan, and she’d sing the praises of his royal hotness as we changed for gym.

A decade and a half removed from that, vintage-rhythm-and-blues aficionado Marvin, the middle-aged cook at the Friendly’s where I was dishwashing (while my graduate degree curled uselessly in a tube somewhere), mentioned Prince alongside Smokey Robinson as “two dudes he just couldn’t get into” for their being (or at least sounding) too effeminate. Which of course made me silently ally with them more. (Note: Marvin was the same guy who, the one time I gave him a ride home, said he was in love with me because I turned my head rather than relying on the sideview mirror to check my blind spot. He also found Placebo’s Meds in the seat of my SUV and said, “Man, I KNEW you was freaky.”)

There were other encounters. The college radio station I could pick up at certain times of night in my hometown where two DJs faced off in a duel of Prince v. Depeche Mode (which, curiously, served to highlight a few similarities between the two). And my hearing, at long last, the amethystine titular track, which was way more New Wave than I had anticipated, and THEN the pained, equal-parts-gritty-and-ethereal cover by Ms. Amos herself.

All that to herald the fact that, teetering on my big 4-0, I finally got down to it.

And during the (not) Lake Minnetonka scene I nearly turned it off.

“What the ****,” I said, over and over.

In retrospect I can see that I was not being objective in that moment. I was seeing an (outwardly) confident, dignified, and mystique-laden girl have her earnestness used against her by a queer-coded and impish, but clearly power-intoxicated and fundamentally misogynist, young man. Result being that she was knocked down a few notches. Worse, across her lips seeped a sort of half-smile that implied she kind of liked it. (Some critics suggest this is male wish-fulfillment, but I’m here to tell you it is also quite plausible.) This was uncomfortably relatable. This was personal.

I scrambled for something to help me get my thoughts in order, and came upon Elwin Cotman’s essay Is He Okay? – Purple Rain (1984). Fortunately, as good criticism does, it gave me a deeper appreciation of the complexity of this hot mess. Ultimately I agree with Cotman that matters of gender are inextricable from matters of race in Purple Rain. It may have seemed that misogyny was played for laughs, particularly early on in the film, but the more lasting impression the movie leaves is one of stereotype-implosion. We are given an atypically intimate look at the perspective of a mixed-race, somewhat androgynous male with both positive and negative qualities. The contrast between his cock-sure dominance of the nightclub stage and his childlike helplessness in the walls of his family’s home is jarring. We are permitted to see him when he is alone, i.e., not under the influence of others’ gaze, and he is someone sensitive, insecure, and traumatized. Also, scenes like (not) Lake Minnetonka, though they may be inappropriately reduced by viewers who lack critical thinking chops, are not presented as flattering. They are spot-lit as toxic, and though we can still give a crap about and acknowledge the complexity of a toxic person, we can still recognize and hold them accountable for the toxicity.

Interior monologue.

And what of Apollonia? Given my history I’d venture to say I can probably shed more light on her than some. Ethnically ambiguous herself, she moves methodically, with the intense awareness of someone who is regularly treated as an enigma, used to attracting attention of all sorts, ceaselessly watched, assessed, coveted, hated. It’s clear she has her own artistic vision and wants influence, too, and it’s worth noting that even after the ugliness of the “Darling Nikki” scene (BTW did I ever tell y’all how sprung I get when artists exorcise very immediate demons and code eff-you messages to each other in public performances? Best days of my life) – which understandably abrades her – she still advances her objective. In general, she floats above the muck and no one but The Kid even comes close to debasing her. I’d wager she’s haunted by what The Kid has the potential to be, and she doesn’t want to HAVE to be on her guard with him. In this escapist fantasy, that works out in the end; in reality, it probably wouldn’t.

I see you.

Which brings me to my main admonition about Purple Rain (if you’re interested, another concerns one particularly hilarious, imagined sex scene, ready-made for a paperback bodice-ripper, that takes place in a barn on a bed of hay): redemption comes swiftly and totally, and what fans remember is the romance of that. Yes, what The Kid experiences at home is the stuff of nightmares, and it makes some logical sense that conditions that extreme could force a crisis of identity and ethics that then plays out via a dramatic stage performance-cum-character transformation. But sentimental viewers need remember that interaction with an individual like The Kid in real life would require hyper-vigilance for the sake of self-preservation. It would be all too reflexive for him to revert, when the going got tough, to the behavior modeled by his father. THE hit – you all know the one – came to him much too easily, and guarding against more of the same would require years of deep therapy, not a mere god-tier rock concert.

Purple poppycock.

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