Prince's 'Purple Rain,' the only vanity-project autobiopic that matters

'Purple Rain,' the only vanity project autobiopic that matters

If you want to capture "Purple Rain's" raw dandified uniqueness in just one scene it would be this one part, about 57 minutes in, when Prince (who plays The Kid, a slight variation on his pre-fame self) gets to his parents' home, his troubled, abusive father nowhere to be found, and bounces through the house looking for pops. "Where are you?" The Kid shouts with a worried whine in his voice and then demands, "Answer me motherfucker!" OK, but then he stomps one foot and elegantly, angrily, spins 180 degrees in frustration. Then he goes into the basement, where he witnesses his failed-musician father shoot himself in the head. That's Prince's "Purple Rain": A movie that finds room for a baffling crowd-pleasing James Brown move amid some mad loaded emotional chaos the movie's not exactly fit to handle.

At once a scrappy coming-of-age tale, cycle-of-abuse parable, big dumb-ass musical, noir-ish misogynist wish-fulfillment hot mess, and the only music-oriented autobiopic that actually totally works (somehow), "Purple Rain" focuses on The Kid trying to make it in the Minneapolis music scene, all the while enduring an abusive household and Morris Day. It's an odd kind of vanity project, full of bumpy bizarre characterization (the Kid tricks his girlfriend into stripping down and jumping into a lake, he does ventriloquism, he jerks off his guitar, he lives in his parents' basement, he is an abusive dictatorlike boyfriend and he dresses like Prince all of the time, no matter what he's doing) in every moment where it should smooth itself out and make some sense—the result of an eccentric rock star at the height his power and all the vanity-project nonsense that comes with said power, no doubt. As you'd imagine, it's pretty much filibustering just to get to the next musical number, though how it kills time is quite special. So you get a scene where ostensible villains Morris Day and his partner Jerome do a kind of Abbot-and-Costello routine, and the movie seems to briefly become some electro-funk version of "Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains" whenever The Kid's bandmates Wendy and Lisa appear.

Then there are the musical sequences, which are some of the most captivating in pop music and redirect the movie's meandering focus back to the odd charisma of Prince—twerpy and pervy and never all that comfortable in front of the camera and doing a Brando mumble meets Chaplin-like smirk (is that why the Purple One's The Kid in this?) to compensate, but onstage, a tiny little ball of provocative, awkward sexuality and guitar skillz, oh man, he's the best.

Playing at the Charles Theater Aug. 13

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