The Little Prince of Purple Rain

Rayvon Pettis


The Atlanta Plaza Theater is located at the heart of downtown old-money/new confusion Ponce de Leon Ave. I don’t know who’s overseen the planning of this essential stretch of East Atlanta as it’s evolved over the years, but collectively they deserve an award for the wonderful stream-of-conscious result. Diners, dance clubs, sports bars, gay bars, strip clubs, college dorms and grocery stores duke it out in a never ending war of commerce and conflicting mantra. The theater itself sits next to Urban Outfitters and a Methodist Church and after all these years it still looks great.

The Plaza is the oldest movie theater in the city and, like the Clairmont down the road, used to be regal, then used to be sketchy, and now just is what it is. The outside is all red lights and intrigue while the interior oozes thickly historic, warmly inviting weirdness waves, having been converted from a grindhouse venue to now promoting independent film and nostalgic midnight matinées. The highlight of this particular evening is an ’80s tribute of limited artwork (really just a handful of smallish, mostly airbrushed Prince portraitures, but I did see a cool one of Reagan fighting communist imperial walkers) and an original first run 32 millimeter screening of Purple Rain. It’s been twenty-five years since Purple Rain opened and with the recent passing of ’80s icons John Hughes (whose film Sixteen Candles was previewed in the screening’s previews) and Michael Jackson, the film works well for framing feelings of nostalgic remembrance many of us might be having.

The real appeal I think of the ’80s is the idea of a brief age when anything could be considered sexy. Sex in the 1950s was outlawed, in the ’60s overvalued, in the ’70s possibly a wee profligate and mismanaged, and in the ’80’s oversold. This is not to say the speed or frequency of actual intercourse increased (with the advent of AIDS, the result being quite the opposite), but it began to spread outward in every direction and could be, as a kind of conceptual theme, packaged with almost anything. As a person conceived in this period, when the value of sex was where the dollar is, today I can’t help wondering what random goofy over-synthesized moment resulted in my accidental existence. I like to think it was the last era unafraid to try absolutely anything and call it “hot.”

Case in point––the dazzling mix of talent, gel lighting and in-your-face crazy of 1984’s Purple Rain staring the artist formerly and presently (but not in the middle!) known as Prince. The basic plot here is that Prince is misunderstood and brilliant and beautiful and has the following problems though not necessarily in this order: his parents are poor and abusive (abusively poor if you will), his girlfriend kind of likes his arch enemy and won’t shut up about him, and oh yeah, Prince is a control freak whose band is ready to quit and everybody hates him. All of these problems are solved one by one by having anyone involved watch a Prince concert, which is probably how Prince solves his problems in real life.

The film is rated R for copious nudity, language and violence all of which are presented in the very highest caliber, and yet I couldn’t imagine anyone being in the least bit offended. Something about the aforementioned devalued ’80s sex makes it all oddly permissible, like cartoon violence or being dog-cussed by a three year old. There’s also the fact that Prince is, even on celluloid, approximately two feet tall and can’t quite bring the audience to shock and awe when attempting to backhand his toned and imposing girlfriend Apollonia.

The project is an obvious vanity piece for the young hungry Prince and every moment demands to be taken seriously yet fails completely. And that is the magic of Prince. The high octane jheri-curled jockey from Minneapolis who mixes effeminate screaming, guitar shredding, Joker-motor-cycling and pointless intercourse so Goddamn perfectly it convinces you there’s just something wrong with the rest of the world.

Purple Rain begins and ends with extended blasting concert scenes unveiling Prince in all his elfin glory, and whatever muddled narrative holds the center together can’t stop the whole experience from feeling like a concert film. Like many modern musical showcase flicks (8 Mile, Crossroads, pretty much every Elvis movie) the chore becomes watching the singer try to act, wondering why the love interest is so love-interested and waiting for the next song to arrive.

It’s always fun to see how screenwriters go about handling these dialogue doomsday type films, they usually opt (per example Purple Rain) to have all speech directed at the unactable star, rather than from him, creating great scenes where women bear souls in nauseous exposition to which Prince will reply “uh huh”. The attempt to pass off the vehicle-driving music star as a poverty stricken abused loner (usually with a broken family) is never a perfect trick, mainly because these stoic standoffish personality traits don’t lend themselves realistically well to people who bounce around shirtless wearing purple pants and scream-singing jazz pop. It’s sort of like the old unbalanced dance movie critique of having a tough defensive street savvy protagonist with nothing to offer his flush white collar crush but rough lovin’ and suspiciously excellent dancing skills (Step Up, Save the Last Dance, Honey albeit with the genders reversed).

And speaking of dancing, can anyone remember just how good Prince is here at doing that? Remember the move where he closes his eyes, pulls his soul inward and spasmodically moves his hands over his hairstyle while compelling himself forward in a hummingbird styled ultrasonic lower leg shuffle? Really everything that goes into perfecting a live show is achieved here so well it pulls all the weirdness along and turns the whole Prince package into a kind of goofy force of nature.

At the end of the day the hard reality is that for all its glam the ‘80s pretty much failed in everything it tried to do. It tried to free music by synthesizing it, making much of its music today unlistenable (or at the very least unmarketable).  It tried to fight real world issues with fantasy (Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ defense initiatives). It tried to tell that us real men eat quiche, real rock and rollers wear spandex, and it tried to tell us Prince would always be cool. But in a weird way, beyond all the disco lights, corporate greed, terrible hairstyles and fitness crazing, what the ‘80s had that puts Purple Rain in theaters in 2009 is courage. And courage, even in drag, will always be cool. Dressing, singing and dancing in the gender bending way Prince did in Minneapolis during a very conservative era was courageous. And courage is something the baroque “irony generation” of today could certainly use more of.