Purple Rain
Music video comes of age

by Jon Lewis

from Jump Cut, no. 30, March 1985, pp. 1, 22, 43
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1985, 2005


PURPLE RAIN begins with a long, visually dazzling, performance-format music video, "Let's Go Crazy." The song is one of Prince's most familiar numbers, and it immediately signals a connection between the character, the Kid, and Prince, the star who plays the Kid. Indeed, the movies advertising campaign makes that connection. "Before he wrote the songs, he lived them." Most important, this opening sequence shows an obvious indebtedness to the form and iconography of music video. PURPLE RAIN adheres to the stylistic flourishes of music video and thus is immediately eye-catching. Correspondingly, it also uses the less-than-savory narrative and moral underpinnings of the new music video form, so it treads on tender ethical ground.

By beginning with "Let's Go Crazy," the film takes on a range of important issues. In the opening number, the Kid and Prince, the music video real-life star, become almost synonymous. We know that the film's character, the Kid, is destined to become a star like Prince, that his songs will be hits, and that he is standing in for "Prince in the lean years" still singing for a wage at the 1st Avenue 7th Street Entry, the famed club that played a role in Prince's rise fame.

The film's dazzling visuals connect with music video in general and specifically with the "Let's Go Crazy" tv video. Albert Magnoli, the film's director, co-scenarist, and editor, successfully raises the nineteen- to twenty-five-inch image esthetic to the large screen. He discovered that music video looks good in 35mm. Also, in the film's narrative construction, he uses ongoing references to performance-style music videos to maintain the obvious substitution of the Kid for Prince. Magnoli is the first 35mm filmmaker to exploit music video both stylistically and narratively to such great effect. This is an essential characteristic of PURPLE RAIN and a main reason why the film is so good and so popular.

The TV music video of "Let's Go Crazy" differs from the film's opening, though both adhere to a performance format as opposed to a "story" format, and both share much of the same "live" footage. The PURPLE RAIN version of "Let's Go Crazy" offers a rather conventional movie musical premise. It introduces the supporting cast as supporting of and being secondary to the star. It also quickly characterizes the milieu. Finally, it refers to the rags-to-riches story so common to movie musicals, with the Kid standing in for the archetypal chorus-line dancer awaiting his date with destiny.

The TV music video of "Let's Go Crazy" includes some of the more stylized choreography of the film's second number, performed by Morris Day and the Time. Despite the different footage, both video and film version identify Prince as an important performer. The TV version also advertises the film and injects selected clips from later moments in the film. Since "Let's Go Crazy" is aired often on television, it offers a new and free form of motion picture advertising (that is, if MTV etc. are not asking for under-the-table payola). It's a strategy PURPLE RAIN shares most obviously with GHOSTBUSTERS.

Both PURPLE RAIN and GHOSTBUSTERS, especially at this writing, share a common distribution scheme. In many locations these popular youth target-audience films were held over through the summer and well into the fall. This "long run" strategy becomes supported by the audience's familiarity with the films, songs and stars. Thus, when we see "Let's Go Crazy" or "When the Doves Cry," we are reminded of a film we've either already seen or should feel left out if we've missed it so far. The trailer-cum-music video participates in the long-run distribution strategy. The video asks the viewer to see the film again and again. For this reason, PURPLE RAIN can sustain a four-month holdover — especially because the studio need not depend on a long running TV trailer-ad. In the case of PURPLE RAIN and GHOSTBUSTERS, the music video advertisements are free, or maybe they're paid for surreptitiously by the record companies.


The Kid differs from his audience, his band and his family. Early on, his dress and his penchant for self-expression, both as a male and as a black, articulate his separation from the other characters. At home he is a spectator to his father's brutality; his powerlessness within the family further alienates him. But his role as a troubled, out-of-place, out-of-step youth also corresponds to his inevitable success as a male, rock-and-roll music-video star. The difference between the Kid and those who follow him is that he is charismatic and they are not.

The Kid also has little to do with the day-to-day business of making music. He lives only for performance, where he is in control, undeniably male, sexually aroused and sexually arousing. He cannot relate to his parents, lover (the ever-loyal Appolonia), band (whom he exploits and behaves rudely towards except on stage), or club owner. The opening performance video sequence shows him as very different from his primary local competitor, Morris Day: a silly, stereotypical (fancy dressing, fast talking, horny) Motown-style singer-performer. Day will plot to undermine the Kid's career through slanderous remarks to the club owner and by setting up a "girls group" to unseat Prince's group, the Revolution. During this, the Kid remains reticent, except when it comes to Appolonia, and endures Day's underhanded tactics. Prince seems to feel self-contained enough to depend on his charisma to succeed on a far larger scale than Morris Day and the Time.

The Kid seems incapable of attending meetings and rehearsals or doing a professional set. Such behavior further mythologizes his self-centeredness. Ultimately he need not be an "organizational man" because he is elite. Separated from the rest of mass society, the Kid can vent narcissistic and sadistic tendencies. And given that he is in the United States, such behavior seems irrelevant because of his success.


Despite or because of its young target audience, PURPLE RAIN and music video in general depend greatly on striking visual style and stunning male performers. Women are (so clearly it's silly to argue this) rendered as willing objects of the male performer's gaze and song and sexual interest. As such, women are used as the ultimate supporting players. Music video often makes them into adoring, dedicated, loyal fans rendered senseless by the magic of the dynamic male performer. Despite her desire to achieve professional status as a singer on her own, Appolonia must accept her supportive role. This is not because she is untalented but because she is a woman in a man's music video.

An early scene in PURPLE RAIN establishes a difference between male and female performers. Morris' girls group rehearses dance steps before an all-male band and a rather ruffled would-be promoter, the comical Mr. Day. Morris abuses the women verbally and does not let them sing. He asks them to "sex-up" their dancing and then exits forlorn as he regrets their lack of talent and reluctance to listen to him and his own inability to have been able to unseat the Kid at the club. On the street he and Jerome (his bodyguard) are accosted by a spurned woman, whom Jerome disposes of in an alley trash container. This action is supposed to elicit a comic effect.

This scene is match cut to a central romantic confrontation between the Kid and Appolonia in front of a music store. As he stares into the window (at his reflection or at a white guitar), she asks, "Do you see anything you like?" She refers to herself. When he responds yes, he clearly does not mean her. In this, their second "meeting," the Kid affirms his self-love and his male (phallic) object love. Though we do not yet know it, he is opening up the avenue for his exploitation of her and his soon-to-be indulged sadistic impulses.


The Kid's motorcycle establishes another reference to the music video formula. In PURPLE RAIN, motorcycle footage provides a logical and visually interesting accompaniment to the music. It alludes to previous films targeted at the youth market (EASY RIDER most obviously). And it refers to the masculine rite of the bike between the legs, something the Kid mentions specifically later on in the film.

The first motorcycle sequence has Appolonia shed her leather togs and dive into freezing water in a "ritual" for love and success. The Kid insists on this purification but only to play a joke at her expense. Appolonia's enthusiasm for success is matched in the film by the trait of sexual "over-eagerness." Seemingly, women's professional and sexual ambition bring out the worst in the Kid and establish the moments when we will see him vent his rage.

After Appolonia has embarrassed herself in front of him/in front of us, Prince pretends to drive off. Then when she tries to mount his bike, he pulls away, teasing her and taunting her, establishing a firm superiority and control over her. She responds by kissing him; thus the film renders his behavior not only permissible but enticing. Seemingly she accepts this behavior because she respects his work and his elite status. As female aspirant in a male star's video, she must be content with what little she can get.

The Kid's perverse style of seduction is more successful than Morris'. Appolonia responds to the local lothario with bemusement, which Morris is either too foolish or too drunk to understand. She prefers the misogynist Prince to the vain and phony romantic. Her choices aren't great in the film but the romantic set-ups indicate that the audience should simply accept attraction for what it is and not for what it does to the woman.


A marketable androgyny is often intrinsic to the male music video star; this androgyny stands as a curious signifier of masculinity and power. The Kid's feminized, on-stage exterior — established through makeup, affectation, hairstyle and pretty face — is matched by a strong but silent off-stage exterior. In each case what we see is a mask. On stage, the shell of femininity houses a masturbating, phallus-clutching hero. Backstage, the stubborn, silent lead singer who refuses even to listen to his women band members', Wendy and Lisa's, song covers over his sensitive female side. For he does listen to these early strains of the song "Purple Rain" in private.

This doubling revolves around a plot device: he exhibits appeal on stage and unappealing behavior off stage. When Wendy and Lisa confront the Kid about using their song, he treats them sadistically. He either ignores them or throws his voice in falsetto through a puppet-monkey on his dressing table. The puppet verbally attacks Wendy: "Next thing you know, she'll want to borrow your motorcycle." She exits in response to the Kid's cruel behavior and his insinuating that she wants to seize his power — his machine. Once the room empties, the puppet cries. But the Kid remains stoic. Though it's a joke, as the monkey emotes, the Kid does not even move his lips. The Kid then turns on the tape recorder and listens carefully to the song. For those who know Prince's work at all, these few bars are immediately recognizable as "Purple Rain," the title song of both the film and the album.


When the Kid first views Appolonia and Morris together at the club, he gives a performance personally aimed at her. It is the first of what will be a series of personalized performances — each baring the Kid's narcissism, sadism and accompanying talent and power. The Kid glares at Appolonia — a look which in the language of music video connotes the star's power and control. There is a slow zoom in on Appolonia. The shot "picks out" the guilty party though we know she has done nothing to feel guilty about. Along with the song's lyrics, this gaze establishes that she is the subject of the song and performance. The camera and the performance put her in a difficult and contradictory position. She is both the punished object and the grateful recipient. She is placed by camera, performance on stage, and narrative line as "willing" to accept his rage if that's the way he wants it.

In that performance, the song's lyrics end with an ultimatum: "What's it gonna be?/Do you want him?/Or do you want me?/'Cause I want you!" She is touched by the song and the Kid's sentiment (though the song is also competitively directed at Morris). She is flattered by how the Kid's jealousy and possessiveness have made her the object of his song. In that performance, the Kid writhes on the floor, clutching, humping and moaning in a manufactured fog. He always takes a risk that his performance might go too far and be too extreme and thus be funny. That it never is reflects his charisma, masculinity and elite status.

His rapture on the floor connects with music video's predilection for such narcissistic displays. The female audience desires the male star, but the male star remains aloof, in love with who he is and what he does. For the Kid such an attitude is explained in the narrative by his alienation off stage and in his home life, and by the constant connection between his personal life and performances. Though the club owner rejects such public displays, especially with a song about masturbation, the Kid eventually wins him over to the notion that performance is not just a job for the Kid (as it is with Morris) but rather life itself.


The story line ventures into the Kid's lair at home in his garage. His retreat there emphasizes his shame about and involvement in family violence, a shame and violence which he dramatically projects onto a sadistic treatment of Appolonia. At one point, the Kid precedes Appolonia into his room, disappears, puts on weird, moaning electronic noise on the stereo, and then sneaks up on her from behind. She responds by embracing him, claiming not to be frightened and offering one silly schoolgirl sexual innuendo after another. He continues to tease her, especially since she explicitly states her desire for him. "Sounds like she's enjoying herself" she remarks about the woman moaning on the tape. "Who is she?" "It's crying backwards," he says in a remark that reflects his own inability to separate pain and suffering from sex and love. "Do you always treat your women like that?" she asks. He answers evasively, "I don't have anyone right now." To the taped sound of the crying/ecstatic woman, they make love. The lovemaking sequence, in fact, was recently edited out of the "held-over" prints, either to widen the audience or to allow those having seen the film in its early days to brag about seeing a legendary print (this release strategy was also employed by APOCALYPSE NOW and AN OFFICER AND A GENTLEMAN).


As Kid's band falls apart around him and Morris and the club owner plot behind his back and his parents fight more, the Kid reacts by becoming more aloof, reticent, alienated, and unfeeling. In response to the women's second query about their song, the Kid sneers at Wendy: "I'm not going to do your stupid music, so get off it!" He seems to fear not only them but their "female song — one that may arouse the "feminine" side of him, an aspect of his young male identity he finds troubling. Such a fear of the female extends to Lisa and Wendy, Appolonia, his mother, and we can assume to women in general.

In private, the Kid continues to study Wendy and Lisa's song — an activity interrupted first by his parents fighting and then by the arrival of Appolonia bearing a gift of the white guitar they saw in the window. At first he's touched, but with the Kid's father's rage resounding in the background, Appolonia announces that she's joined Morris' newly formed Appolonia 6. He hits her and leaves her on the floor holding her face. He issues a warning and delivers a cryptic lecture.

The Kid repeats his father's oddly important line, "I would die for you." This line finds its way into the finale set. For both the Kid and his father, "I would die for you" represents a heroic romantic stance beneath their rage. The Kid invokes the father again, by asking Appolonia, "Don't I make you happy?" The narrative indicates that his destiny is to be just like his old man, and frustration with the opposite sex seemingly explains why.

PURPLE RAIN, for all its violence and discord, also suggests the viability of the U.S. nuclear family. In the same weird way that FOOTLOOSE and TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (two hugely popular films) reinstate this "sacred American value" of family, PURPLE RAIN couples that restorative thematic with another racist political agenda. In PURPLE RAIN, the message "like father like son" indicates some kind of brutal "natural selection" within the U.S. black family dynamic. The film implies that the black male is genetically violent, dissatisfied, and thus unable to play the role of father. Seemingly only the lesson of separation and brutality is what the kid's father has to pass on to his son. For the Kid, more so than the father's music, this is his legacy.

Despite its racist depiction of irrational and violent behavior, PURPLE RAIN, like a number of other recent U.S. films, embraces this "here comes the American family again" theme. It parallels the social agenda of the political Right. In films like FOOTLOOSE and PURPLE RAIN, happy restorative endings are provided despite major narrative contradictions. Even though the films show us misogyny, brutality and narcissism, their endings ask us to have faith in the family's ability to transcend anti-social behavior. In PURPLE RAIN, however, the ending supports the lead character's sociopathology. And his elite status allows him to remain immune to the specific lessons Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson provide for the common man.

In the "final festival" in these films, the embracing celebrations at the end of TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, FOOTLOOSE and PURPLE RAIN, closure is imposed with enthusiasm and conviction. One is asked to have faith in artificial and incomplete solutions and to accept inconsistencies and inequities in the name of sacred values like the family, the church, and the "self-made-man" Horatio Alger mythology. Obviously such endings are ultimately religious in nature.


"When the Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy" still play often on MTV. "When the Doves Cry" tells the off-stage story of the Kid. In the film, "When the Doves Cry" is presented as a montage-story video, with the song on the soundtrack set to marginally related images on screen. To a large extent, "When the Doves Cry" tells "the other story" that the "Let's Go Crazy" performance video elides.

There are two tv video versions of "When the Doves Cry," both of which contain clips from the film and both of which are different from the "video" of the song as depicted in the film. MTV, the increasingly powerful music video network, has had much to do with PURPLE RAIN's box office success. MTV has aired both versions of "When the Doves Cry" — enabling the VJ's to play it more than almost any other song. Likely as a matter of repayment, the distributors of PURPLE RAIN actively participated in MTV's "opening night event," which included red carpet interviews outside the theater and a post-premier party featuring more interviews, clips from the film and of course the tv videos of "When the Doves Cry, I and II" and "Let's Go Crazy".

From what was in many ways an orgy of self-promotion for MTV, notice was served to producers of future youth-targeted motion pictures. PURPLE RAIN has proven that MTV can guarantee publicity and a nationwide audience. Given the supposed difficulties in "making it" simply as a cable tv station (ESPN, USA, and MTV have all claimed that they are losing money), such outside interests may insure a young network's lasting success. And MTV's role as a purveyor of taste, especially within the youth market, should keep the Hollywood studios interested in a rapid-montage, flashy "video" format.

The chorus in "When the Doves Cry" in all three video versions refers directly to the principal dramatic conflict facing the Kid in the film. The chorus begins, "Maybe I'm just like my father …" Certainly the kid's brutality and self-destructive attitude support that contention. "Maybe I'm just like my mother …", the next line, is at first confusing, especially since the mother is given so little to say or do in the film. The following line is, "She's never satisfied." That notion corresponds to the few lines the mother has in the film: "Why don't you ever take me anywhere? … Whey don't we ever have fun anymore?" Those lines cast her as a nag, and they connect the Kid with his father. Both men distrust women and both fear/hate either "woman's" sexual or professional desire.

What is also at stake in this male/female drama is the ongoing adolescent male dilemma, which runs through much of the film up until the father's attempted suicide. The Kid's feminized side has been ridiculed by his androgyny and trivialized by his affectations and has been so much at the root of his violent outbursts. A "feminine sensibility" lies at the heart of "When the Doves Cry." "When the Doves Cry" recapitulates and articulates the central drama. In the film this narrative function becomes tied to images of motorcycle riding and stylized heterosexual contact. But the whole song then provides a layered and subliminal advertisement for music video (and MTV) while we are watching the film, and for the film while we are watching the music videos.


The Kid's repetition of his father's mistakes extends beyond their ill treatment of women. Man-to-man the two seldom relate, and in the end the father has but one piece of advice, "Never get married." Immediately following this remark, director Magnoli cuts on sound (to the Kid's music) and then on image (to the club). We see the Kid shot in low angle standing on stage, naked from the waist up, donning a bandit's mask à la Zorro. The first song in this set stages Wendy on her knees, back to the audience; her head is at the level of the Kid's low strung guitar. It obviously connotes her sexual subjugation, and ironically the screeching strains on the guitar emanate from her and not from him. Weirdly the film depicts her as in pornography, serving the man and receiving pleasure from doing so at the same time.

When Appolonia had gone to the club with Morris, the Kid performed a song about Nikki, a sex fiend. His performance ended in masturbatory rapture — stylized first as male and then as female — offering a ridicule of him and Appolonia together. By the end of the song it is clear that the Kid prefers to perform on stage. "Nikki" prompted Appolonia to exit the club crying, to which the Kid, on stage, sneers, "Come back, Nikki. Come back." By literalizing what has obviously referred to Appolonia all along, the Kid affirms the illusory distinction between his on and off stage performances. At this point, the Kid's insistence on venting his personal crises on stage leads to a confrontation with the club owner. "The stage is no place for your personal shit," the owner says. "It's my life," the Kid responds. "Nobody digs your music but yourself," the owner continues. "You're just like your old man …," referring to the father's career as composer and pianist. At this moment the owner surfaces as the film's truth teller, its Teiresias. The Kid, the egocentric tragic hero he seemingly so desires to be, descends deeper into his hubris in search of the good that lies within the father.


The Kid's range of self-expression (and music video stars are nothing if not self-expressive) operates to the rather limited range of music and performance which the film allows the group, Appolonia 6. The "girls" (I use this word in context) are dressed in underwear, garters and stockings: not only prostituted but as prostitutes. Despite their ability to sing, their rendition of the song "Sex Shooter" is undermined by the club audience's view of them as strippers. Their performance is no more exhibitionist than the Kid's, but they simply cannot escape "the mask of beauty." Moreover, Morris has exploited them in revealing costumes and staged them in aggressive postures. They fail. This does not result from a lack of talent, but rather comes about via a fundamental inappropriateness of a semi-strip act to the club, to music video, and to rock and roll in general. The film both presents them with the iconography of strippers and, in the narrative line, has them fail because of that iconography.


To celebrate what they foolishly believe to be a victory over the Kid, Morris and Appolonia exit the club arm in arm. Both are drunk and both have different ideas about how the night will end. Morris is an innocuous suitor; thus the Kid's violent reaction to his involvement with Appolonia is unreasonable and perhaps not even sincere. Still, the Kid "saves" her from Morris, angrily shouting, "Get on," after he runs Morris down on his motorcycle.

But again, soon after this, the Kid punches Appolonia and knocks her down. He offers no apology, only one more explanation and yet another warning. He seems just like his father, especially in the face of success. The racist scenario is extended. Even if the Kid does make it from nobody to star, from a little house to a big one, he will still harbor the self-centered sadism that is his very nature.

The Kid's rescue of Appolonia on the rain-swept urban streets reminds viewers of Nick's rescue of Alex in FLASHDANCE out in front of Mawby's Bar. And in a way, FLASHDANCE and PURPLE RAIN have something else in common. Appolonia shares Alex's dreams of stardom and willingly dresses up, dances on stage and seems a confident, aggressive sexual woman on stage and off. But Appolonia's performance — skimpily dressed and sexually provocative — leads immediately to the connotative connection of any female public performance with striptease. PURPLE RAIN offers that connection as inevitable, which may be quite perceptive, while FLASHDAUCE myopically argues that Mawby's has a different atmosphere than the sleezy Zanzibar night club or other working-class, all-male urban haunts. PURPLE RAIN dismisses such a naive scenario. Perhaps, in its own perverse way, it ends up presenting a much less pretty but more sophisticated view of female performance in male-dominated public environments.

Nevertheless, PURPLE RAIN remains to the end a violent, misogynist adolescent male fantasy. Though it benefits visually from its stylistic indebtedness to music video, PURPLE RAIN suffers dearly for its refusal to ferret out the violence and sexism from the patriarchal music-video "narrative" formula. As a result, the film is both a vanguard movie musical and a sociopathic parable. Magnoli appears to be clever enough to link a new visual style to a dying genre, but at the same time he is too shallow to couple stylistic innovation with social conscience. Though the film displays a non-bourgeois camera style, it clings to the most repressive of bourgeois fables.

The final scene shows a performance video much like the opening one. It corresponds to both the performance video formula and the classic Hollywood movie musical. When Prince achieves his rightful place in society by finally performing the women's song, the rest of the cast celebrates the event without reservation. His ability to toy with sexual difference, to vent his rage on stage and off, enables him literally to stand above the crowd. When he sings, "I'm no messiah and you're the reason why," he is never more wrong or more dishonest. He dedicates the number to his father. His ability to capitalize on the song and on his father's attempted suicide signifies his heroism. His behavior and nature are irrelevant to the unquestionable cinematic conclusion that he is a star. As a result, nothing undercuts the adolescent-male fable of success. Rather the unswerving development of that myth falls into place within the film's allegiance to music video and to the dream of becoming an elite. Clearly, PURPLE RAIN is telling us that being an elite means never having to say you're sorry.