Transcendent music can cover a multitude of sins, which is pretty much the only reason Purple Rain works at all.
Drawn loosely from Prince’s own life—yet very much informed by his horny-magician aesthetic—the funk opera follows up-and-coming Minneapolis club performer The Kid (Prince) as he negotiates a home life with an abusive father, a romance with an aspiring singer (Apollonia Kotero), and a rivalry with club headliner Morris (Morris Day, backed by his real-life band, The Time).
Director Albert Magnoli mostly employs a “don’t get in the way” approach, smartly allowing Prince’s vocal dexterity, agility as a dancer, and musicianship to take center stage. (Magnoli does indulge in a perfect slow zoom during “The Beautiful Ones,” closing in on Apollonia’s face as she falls under Prince’s spell.) Every musical number is electric, each in its own way, yet it’s fascinating how Prince’s charisma drains completely the moment he leaves the stage (not so for Day, who remains engaging throughout).
The moments between Prince and Apollonia are the most painful: the awful dialogue, the hokey staging, and because they put the sexism and objectification that is also part of his music on full display. And yet, Purple Rain at least recognizes that The Kid’s worst actions—slapping Apollonia, for instance—are part of a cycle of abuse, learned behavior from his father (a solid Clarence Williams III). For all its silliness and frivolousness—I’m still not sure what The Kid is doing with that puppet backstage—there’s also a sincere desire to interrogate violent impulses against women.
What’s more, as much as Purple Rain functions as hagiography, the movie also goes out of its way to stress that the title song—the performance toward which the entire film is building—is conceived of not by The Kid, but by “the girls in the band,” Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. There’s even a nice little moment, during that performance, when Prince leans over to Wendy and gives her an appreciative kiss on the cheek. If only Apollonia had been given similar respect.