Jheri Curl Cinema: Purple Rain (1984)

Jheri Curl June is, of course, first and foremost about the music. But, as I wrote in this year’s introductory post, jheri curl is also a profoundly visual form; it is, after all, the only genre of music to my knowledge named after a hairstyle. And so it only makes sense that we should also take some of the imagery associated with the music into consideration. That’s why this year, I’m happy to announce an entirely new feature dedicated to Jheri Curl Cinema. And there’s no other film more qualified to launch such a feature than Prince’s and Albert Magnoli’s 1984 cult classic Purple Rain.

There are a few reasons why Purple Rain is so perfect for our inaugural Jheri Curl Cinema post. First, yesterday was of course Prince‘s 57th birthday–and while His Royal Badness presumably hasn’t celebrated his birthday since he became a Jehovah’s Witness in 2001, that just means we have to celebrate it twice as hard. But second, and more to the point, Purple Rain is an important film because it captures the essence of the Minneapolis scene in the early 1980s–and thus, by extension, the essence of jheri curl music itself.

Stills from Prince's abortive first attempt at a feature film, The Second Coming; courtesy of Chuck Statler, stolen from Wax Poetics
Stills from Prince’s abortive first attempt at a feature film, The Second Coming; courtesy of Chuck Statler, stolen from Wax Poetics

The film concept that would ultimately become Purple Rain existed as early as 1982, when Prince hired “godfather of the music video” Chuck Statler–director of, among others, the promo for Devo’s “Whip It“–to shoot concert footage at his Bloomington, Minnesota date near the end of the Controversy tour. As Statler tells it in a 2012 interview with Wax Poetics, the project quickly morphed into something bigger: “We were cutting the concert shots when Prince came in and got really excited about what he saw. He says, ‘Wait a minute–maybe we should really expand this and really try to make it a film. Not just a concert movie.'” The resulting project, titled The Second Coming, was conceived as a concert film with semi-autobiographical narrative material between songs, somewhat similar in structure to Peter Clifton’s and Joe Massot’s 1976 Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains the Same. It would ultimately never be completed; Prince’s notorious perfectionism held up production and led to clashes with the director. In one, hilarious story, Statler recounts the star insisting on shooting take after take, wasting over a thousand feet of film, just to get a single boom shot of himself seductively blowing a bubble of chewing gum.

© Warner Bros.
© Warner Bros.

As was the case with so many of his other projects in the 1980s, the mercurial artist lost interest in The Second Coming before it was even finished shooting; but the idea for a film that combined live concert footage with the narrative tropes of the biopic remained. Later in 1982, while on the Triple Threat tour with the Time and Vanity 6, Prince reconceptualized the film with a stronger emphasis on story. This time, too, it would be a full-blown studio project: Prince’s management convinced Warner Bros. Records to help finance the film for possible distribution by their parent company’s motion picture branch–no small request, as the prospective star and driving creative force had no real screen experience and was yet to even fully cross over to the mainstream pop market. Television writer William Blinn, best known for Brian’s Song (1971) and Roots (1977)–was hired to carve out a screenplay from Prince’s largely stream-of-consciousness notes. The project, which Blinn provisionally titled Dreams (much to Prince’s chagrin), was without a director until USC graduate Albert Magnoli came on board in September 1983–less than two months before shooting began. It was Magnoli’s first feature-length film as a director.

Peep those smoldering skills; © Warner Bros.
Peep those smoldering skills; © Warner Bros.

From its seat-of-the-pants production to its (marginally) polished final product, Purple Rain has a scrappy, rough-around-the-edges feel, and that’s a large part of its charm. Prince plays “the Kid,” a barely-veiled version of himself, on the strength of a few weeks of acting lessons and an innate ability to smolder at the camera. Indeed, only three of the film’s principal actors are professionals: Clarence Williams III (formerly “Linc Hayes” on The Mod Squad) as the Kid’s father, “Francis L.”; Olga Karlatos (Once Upon a Time in America) as his unnamed mother; and relative unknown Apollonia Kotero as his love interest–a last-minute replacement for Prince’s real-life ex-paramour, Vanity, who acrimoniously left the Prince camp weeks before filming. The rest of the cast is drawn from Prince’s entourage or from elsewhere in the contemporary Minneapolis music scene. Backing band the Revolution and rival acts the Time and the now-rechristened Apollonia 6 all obviously play themselves; club owner “Billy” is Prince’s then-road manager, Billy Sparks; the lovestruck bartender “Jill” is backing singer and future protégée Jill Jones; the hirstute bouncer who lumbers into the frame a few times to deliver hilariously wooden lines is bodyguard Charles “Big Chick” Huntsberry, best known as the guy who used to lug Prince around on his shoulders in crowded venues. The fact that these characters all share first names with their performers speaks both to the inexperience of the cast and to the realism the film attempts to cultivate.

Real, stoic indifference; © Warner Bros.
Authentic, stoic indifference; © Warner Bros.

By the same token, the decision to shoot the majority of the film on location in Minneapolis lends an almost documentary-style sense of authenticity to Purple Rain‘s musical segments. First Avenue, the club where most of the film’s action unfolds, actually served as Prince’s main hometown stage during the early 1980s; basic tracks for the last three songs on the Purple Rain album–“I Would Die 4 U,” “Baby I’m a Star,” and the title track–were even recorded there, at the August 3, 1983 benefit concert where Prince unveiled new material for the film as well as his new lineup for the Revolution. So, while the concert sequences in Purple Rain are lip-synced from the album versions, they still have the electrifying feel of live performance, thanks largely to the milieu in which they were shot: those are real, local fans in the audience, and their enthusiasm–or, as the case may be, hip, stoic indifference–is real, even if the performances are not. Watching Purple Rain is as close as most of us can come to knowing what it was like to be a part of the “Uptown” music scene it so memorably documents.

As exciting as another band's real live performances: Prince goes off on "The Beautiful Ones"; © Warner Bros.
As exciting as another band’s “real” live performance: Prince goes off on “The Beautiful Ones”; © Warner Bros.

Yet credit must also go to Prince himself, as well as the other musicians assembled, for crafting those performances in the first place. It’s a testament to Prince’s stage presence, and the showmanship he drilled into his band members, that a mimed and filmed act by the Revolution or the Time is as exciting to watch as another band’s “real” live performance. So many of the memorable moments in Purple Rain are in the musical sequences, enacted with a paradoxical blend of apparent spontaneity and obsessively-rehearsed precision. Prince standing up from his piano and running his hands through his hair–not exactly a jheri curl, but close enough for our purposes–during the gorgeous ballad “The Beautiful Ones.” The Time’s comical, perfectly synchronized dance steps for “Jungle Love” and “The Bird.” The weird, erotic psychodrama of Wendy Melvoin going down on Prince’s guitar during “Computer Blue,” and the stage-humping finale of “Darling Nikki.” The bizarre, yet oddly exultory moment in “I Would Die 4 U” where Prince takes off across the stage, shuffling with tiny steps in his high heels and caressing his body from his head to his crotch, before freezing in front of Bobby Z’s drum set and shaking his ass–all, lest we forget, during a song about Jesus. And of course, the literally orgasmic moment that closes both “Baby I’m a Star” and the film itself, where Prince jizzes water out of his guitar neck all over the audience and then whirls to face the camera in a freeze-frame extreme close-up.

© Warner Bros.
© Warner Bros.

You’ll notice I don’t have much to say about Purple Rain‘s narrative; that’s because, as many critics have observed, it’s both the film’s weakest aspect and largely beside the point. I will say, though, that Prince isn’t always given credit for his willingness to portray a character as unlikable as the Kid, particularly in a film with such a strongly autobiographical bent. For most of the film, the Kid is petulant and manipulative toward his bandmates, emotionally and even physically abusive toward his girlfriend, and generally a psychologically stunted and troubled person. At the time, this portrayal was widely criticized, with many reviewers and cultural commentators calling Purple Rain misogynistic–and to be fair, any film with a scene in which a lippy woman is thrown into a dumpster for laughs probably earns such an accusation. But I prefer to give Prince, Magnoli, and Blinn a little more credit, and view the Kid’s character arc as an earnest portrayal of toxic masculinity and the dangers of the “tortured artist” persona, from a performer who clearly struggled in his own life with connecting emotionally to the people around him. Anyway, at the very least, the part of the film’s storyline where Apollonia takes her top off  was certainly a formative sexual experience for a whole generation of preteens–hell, it basically was one for me, and I was a grown-ass man the first time I saw it.

Purple Rain is almost unanimously considered the best of what I like to call the “Prince Trilogy” of narrative films, which also included 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon and the 1990 semi-sequel Graffiti Bridge. There are plenty of reasons why this is the case–not least the inverse relationship between Prince’s declining artistic powers and his growing, unchecked creative control during the latter years of the decade. But for me, the real way in which Purple Rain succeeds where the latter films fail is in its ability to capture an epochal moment in Prince’s career, and in popular music more generally. Prince’s later films were, like Prince himself, increasingly insular and detached from the world around him: Graffiti Bridge in particular eschewed shooting in the real world entirely, much less Minneapolis, in favor of the world’s least convincing soundstage. But Purple Rain takes the audience directly into Prince’s world at the time, from the First Avenue stage to, albeit less successfully, his tormented personal relationships; like the aforementioned final shot, it’s a freeze-frame of Prince in 1984, at the peak of his powers and influence. If we were to leave a time capsule for future generations to understand the cultural zenith that was the Jheri Curl Era, a copy of Purple Rain would be an invaluable artifact to include. That’s why it, and only it, must be the first installment of our series on Jheri Curl Cinema.

And now, ladies and gentlemen…the Revolution.

© Warner Bros.
© Warner Bros.

For your listening pleasure, we’ve added seven tracks from the Purple Rain soundtrack to the Spotify playlist…sorry, no “Modernaire” (but we can dream). We’ll be back with our regularly-scheduled programming tomorrow!

3 Replies to “Jheri Curl Cinema: Purple Rain (1984)”

  1. I wrote “The Second Coming” piece for Wax Poetics. I’m really digging this site, especially the Jheri Curl series. Looking forward to more.

    – TB

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