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Does 'Purple Rain' Actually Suck?

We look back on Prince's 1984 cult classic to see if it still warrants all the hype.

by Adam Tod Brown
Mar 13 2017, 4:14pm

Warner Bros.

Does It Suck? takes a deeper look at pop cultural artifacts previously adored, unjustly hated, or altogether forgotten, reopening the book on topics that time left behind.

Now that Prince is back on Spotify, countless fans will likely be revisiting his catalog in the coming weeks. It's a safe bet that several of those trips down Nostalgia Road will lead to one inevitable destination: Purple Rain.

Despite having released 39 studio albums over the course of his absurdly prolific career—most of them well after he'd bowed out of the fight for the title of World's Biggest Pop Star—Purple Rain is still the go-to subject matter when talking about Prince. It makes perfect sense if we're discussing his work in the recording studio. Only a few albums in history can honestly be described as "flawless," and Purple Rain is absolutely one of them. The movie, however, is an entirely different matter.

At the time of its release, the film version of Purple Rain seemed like a monumental achievement, and for good reason. The world hadn't seen a music act release a film that was capable of standing alone as a separate piece of work from the songs that inspired it since the Beatles released A Hard Day's Night in 1964.

This achievement doesn't necessarily mean Purple Rain is a good movie, though. If you were one of the millions who flocked to theaters when it was re-released after Prince's untimely death, you'd be straight up lying to yourself if you said it still holds up today.

For starters, the acting is nearly across-the-board terrible. Sure, Prince is as charming as ever, but his performance is goofy and stiff and makes what is supposed to be a film set in the real world seem approximately as believable as most horror flicks. The only real saving graces on the acting front are Morris Day and Jerome Benton from the Time. While we're supposed to be fascinated by the brewing romance between Prince and Apollonia, the already well-established bromance between Morris and Jerome steals the show at every turn. Watching the two of them together is a goddamn delight in almost every way.

Almost. A key scene involving those two also perfectly highlights another gigantic flaw in Purple Rain. At its core, it's a movie about how Prince needs to be better to the women in his life, but it takes sitting through lots of scenes of women being treated like garbage, both figuratively and literally, to get to that message. In one of the most memorable scenes, Morris and Jerome are confronted by a woman who's angry that Morris hasn't returned her calls, and they respond by tossing her in a dumpster.

In another scene, Prince smacks Apollonia, sending her flying across the room, simply because she insulted him. It's cool, though, because he fixes everything in the end by jamming out to "Purple Rain," which makes everything OK again for everybody.

Basically, Purple Rain is a really great concert film with a mostly bullshit drama wrapped around it. You'll still find lots of enjoyment in the music scenes, but the rest is unspeakably cringeworthy.

What's even worse is how mightily Purple Rain overshadows the other entries in Prince's filmography. He released four over the course of his career. One of them, Graffiti Bridge, the official "sequel" to Purple Rain, is total nonsense that you can avoid without worry of missing anything worthwhile. The other two, however, deserve way more attention than history has given them up to this point.

After the runaway success of Purple Rain, Prince was given free reign to do whatever the hell he wanted. What he delivered was Under the Cherry Moon, an absurd comedy set at an undetermined point in the past. It's about two scheming brothers, played by Prince and Jerome, who have designs on marrying into the upcoming $50 million inheritance of a young French woman. That role is filled by eventual Academy Award nominee Kristin Scott Thomas, a fact that, by itself, makes this movie worth checking out—even if audiences vehemently disagreed at the time of its release.

Prince followed Under the Cherry Moon, the closest he'd ever come to making an "actual" movie, by releasing his first and only big-screen concert film: Sign o' the Times. Rest assured, in keeping with his general aesthetic, it's weird as shit and includes some scripted moments that you'll wish weren't there, but for the most part, it's just Prince onstage at the height of his creative powers. Which makes it all the more frustrating that tracking down a legitimately released, high-quality copy of it today is next to impossible.

What's most valuable about these two relatively forgotten moments in Prince's career is that they're both far better examples of the two things that made the Purple Rain movie the box office success that it was. In Under the Cherry Moon, Prince's goofy attempts at comedy are way more at home than in the film that preceded it. Morris Day is definitely missed, but the interactions between Prince and Jerome Benton are genuinely charming and funny. The "wrecka stow" scene rivals Purple Rain's "Lake Minnetonka" bit for the funniest moment in Prince movie history.

It's a completely fictional comedy that doubles as a perfect demonstration of the real life charisma that went a long way toward making Prince into the icon that he became. (And it helps that not a single woman gets beat or thrown in a dumpster.) Also, weirdly enough, the fact that it's set in the past and filmed in black and white makes it feel significantly less dated than Purple Rain.

As for Sign o' the Times, it's Prince at his creative peak, in concert, without all of the awkward drama that makes up half of Purple Rain. You could argue all day about which set of songs featured in the two films are better, but there's no denying that Sign o' the Times is a more accurate representation of what seeing Prince in concert was actually like. In Purple Rain, the songs were played pretty much as you hear them on the album, whereas Sign features tunes that are reworked and extended to display the off the charts musicianship that was a hallmark of Prince's bands and live performances.

Of course, none of this is meant to imply that Purple Rain should be skipped or forgotten. Its place in the history of one of the greatest artists of all time is undeniable. But if you're looking for a film that explains the mystique of Prince the personality or Prince the performer, in either case, you can do a lot better.

Follow Adam Tod Brown on Twitter.