Every once in a while, there are rare moments in pop culture when the stars align, and for a brief glorious moment, an artist and his audience fuse into one. Like a fly in amber, the zeitgeist is captured, and the moment becomes permanently etched in our collective consciousness.
One such moment came in 1984, when Prince captivated the world with 'Purple Rain.' More than just an album, more than just a movie, and more than just a gargantuan tour, 'Purple Rain' signaled a seismic shift in music, fashion, film and celebrity. Just as when the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, or Michael Jackson moonwalked on the Motown 50th Anniversary Special, even at the time, you had a distinct sense that lightning had just been caught in a bottle.
'Purple Rain' is perhaps the one semi-modern movie that's impossible to talk about without talking about the songs -- in fact, just about every single one of the ten compositions Prince created for 'Purple Rain' is a classic. Number one hits like "When Doves Cry," "Let's Go Crazy," "I Would Die 4 U," "Take Me With U," and of course "Purple Rain" turned the movie an unstoppable force of nature. The box office was huge, and the album reigned the top of the Billboard charts for an astonishing 24 weeks.
But 'Purple Rain' was more than just commercial synergy. Creatively, it was a watershed in merging genres, demographics and musical ideologies -- from rock to funk to pop to new wave. It was as if the creative heavens opened for Prince -- the riffs, the melodies and the lyrics all seemed to effortlessly fit together like some cosmic jigsaw puzzle, as if the artist was channeling some sort of higher musical power that said "if you build it, they will come." It's hard to define that elusive thing called magic, but in 1984 Prince had it in spades.
The story of the film (loosely played out in the songs themselves) adheres to the typical tradition of the rock movie -- autobiographical enough that the artist and his character are doppelgangers, yet with enough fiction inserted to avoid lawsuits. Prince stars as The Kid, and boy is he funky. Jamming with his band The Revolution every night at the local First Avenue Club in Minneapolis, he has big dreams, and an even bigger ego. His abusive home life (particularly his gun-toting dad, played by 'Mod Squad's Clarence Williams III) is threatening to crash the party, especially after new girl in town Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero) can't decide between The Kid or his musical rival (Morris Day). Can The Kid overcome his demons and find redemption in music, or will he self-destruct?
Ironically, 'Purple Rain' the film may be the weakest link in what became Prince's pop culture trifecta. Subtract the music and blistering concert sequences (which are still so hot that they threatened to melt the disc right in my player), and the movie is narratively clunky and dramatically slapdash. Shot like a two-hour music video by Albert Magnoli in his directorial debut, Magnoli doesn't so much construct scenes as string together cool shots and give them a beat. The acting is also limp. Almost everyone -- Prince included -- is simply playing themselves, and it shows with line readings so stilted that it may as well be Amateur Night at the Apollo.
Worse, 'Purple Rain' is an often unabashedly misogynist film. What should one make of such "comic" scenes as Day, after being confronted by a date he blew off, throws her in a dumpster to the sound of uproarious laughter? Then there is Apollonia, a creation that could have come from the mind of adolescent male fantasy. Despite being repeatedly slapped, beaten and publicly humiliated by The Kid, she only seems to grow more infatuated and aroused by him as the film wears on. This bizarre pop psychology reaches its zenith in the climax, where the moral of the story seems to boil down to the redemptive power of music -- as long as you can belt out a number as beautiful as "Purple Rain," apparently you can cure misogyny, domestic violence and self-possessed rage all in one fell swoop.
Having said all that, it is the passionate frisson between the artist and his myth-making fiction that ignites 'Purple Rain.' From inner turmoil and ugliness came more than great music, but ground zero in a new chapter in modern music. It is no overstatement to say that with 'Purple Rain,' Prince truly blazed new avenues in modern music. Mixing funk, rock, pop, new wave, soul and gospel, there were few young Americans who didn't love Prince in 1984. He was not only in sync with the times with 'Purple Rain,' he simultaneously defined an era and propelled it into the future. Whatever highs and lows his career may have reached since, one need only look back at 'Purple Rain' to know that Prince will always reign.
Warner Home Video presents 'Purple Rain' in 1080p/VC-1 video, and in its original theatrical matted aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The studio previously remastered the film back in 2004 for a two-disc standard-def DVD version, and this HD DVD appears to be from that master. The good news is that what was a nice overhaul three years ago remains so. The bad news is that this high-def version doesn't offer much of an appreciable upgrade over what has come before.
'Purple Rain' had suffered over the years on video, largely due to poor pan & scan transfers with muddy visuals and weak colors, so this recent remaster is certainly a great improvement, even it isn't quite a revelation. Due to the film's fairly low-budget and largely dim-light photography, grain is rampant and often varies wildly from scene-to-scene, but the source is pretty clean, with only some sporadic dirt and a speckle or two present. Colors are vivid, especially the deep reds, blues and -- of course -- purple. Detail is also fairly good, with long shots now sharper and fine details more apparent in darker scenes.
However, in judging this high-def version of the remaster with its standard-def counterpart, it was only via direct comparison that I was able to detect much difference between the two. The high-def version just doesn't deliver anything close to the upgrade I've become accustomed to, especially from Warner -- the image is still fairly flat and soft, colors have punch but don't leap off the screen, and contrast similarly just doesn't have much pop.
Make no mistake, 'Purple Rain' looks fine and is certainly easy on the eyes. But in terms of an upgrade, it's among the least notable catalog titles in Warner's next-gen library so far.
Although the inclusion of a full-blown Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround mix (48kHz/16-bit) raised hopes that this would be one killer soundtrack, like the video, 'Purple Rain's recently remastered audio is also comparatively disappointing.
As we learn in the included supplements, 'Purple Rain's "song score" included both traditional studio recordings (including "When Doves Cry") as well as tracks that were recorded live to backing tapes. This was also in the age before digital recording was commonplace. The result is that even remastered, 'Purple Rain's classic songs still sound dated in fidelity, and limited in sonic scope. It's particularly unfortunate, because who wouldn't want to crank up this HD DVD and blow out the speakers with earth-shaking rock?
Flipping back and forth between the included Dolby TrueHD and Dolby Digital-Plus (640kbps) tracks yielded little of the appreciable upgrade I had hoped for. Bass still sounds '80s flat, and upper ranges are also flat and compressed. As the film takes place primarily at clubs and in other loud environments, the dialogue was mostly looped, and it sounds like it. Finer subtleties are often lost, to the point where dialogue is obscured and volume boosting was required. Surround use is also poor, with only processed bleed to the rears and no true sonic separation of instruments in the mix.
To be sure, 'Purple Rain' doesn't sound bad -- it's a clean mix, at least -- but compared to some of the truly phenomenal 5.1 surround music remixes I've heard over the years (some for albums far older than this one), 'Purple Rain' fails to deliver the wallop I'd hoped for.
Warner finally gave 'Purple Rain' the deluxe treatment on standard-def DVD back in 2004, and happily the studio has seen fit to port over all of the major extras from that two-disc set over to this high-def edition.
The bad news, however, is that the always-reclusive Prince decided not to take part. Still, to the credit of the studio as well as production team at New Wave Entertainment, these features include such an extensive assortment of filmmakers, ex-bandmates and other music contemporaries that the omission of the man himself is far from fatal. In fact, Prince's absence in some ways makes these extras even more interesting, as we get an honest, 'Rashomon'-like multiple-perspective look at the artist and the music that transformed him into a legend.
First up, we have a screen-specific audio commentary with director Albert Magnoli, producer Robert Cavallo and cinematographer Donald Thorin. Unfortunately, this is the weakest of the main extras. Despite boasting three participants, the track is marred by frequent dead patches and dull meandering. For some reason, the trio decided to focus almost exclusively on tech details (how cold it was, where this scene was shot, etc.) and not the stuff most of really want to know about -- i.e., Prince and his music. Luckily, the video-based supplements pick up the slack on this count, but as is, I can't imagine anyone but the most diehard fans making it all the way through this one.
The three-part, 48-minute documentary is where the real meat is. Again, there is no Prince (nor Morris Day or Apollonia, for that matter), but no fewer than two dozen collaborators, bandmates, local musicians and journalists weigh in on the 'Purple Rain' phenomenon, among them Revolution members Wendy & Lisa, Matt Fink and Bobby Z., fellow Time bandmates Jellybean Johnson, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, actress Jill Jones, Prince's managers (at the time) Craig Rice and Alan Leeds, screenwriter William Blinn, MTV's Kurt Loder, Magnoli and Cavallo, and even Macy Gray.
Part one of the doc, "First Avenue: The Road to Pop Royalty" (12 minutes) wisely dissects not just where Prince was at musically in 1983 as he was developing 'Purple Rain,' but also the whole Minneapolis scene that served as the incubator for the pop culture maelstrom to come. It was a movement that was organic and inclusive, straddling all races, genders, orientations and tastes, mixing funk, rock, pop and punk in a way that even MTV (at the time) never dared.
Part two, "Purple Rain: Backstage Pass" (26 minutes) is a more straightforward making-of, but it also has some excellent insights into key songs, as well as the more autobiographical moments in the film. From Prince writing and composing "When Doves Cry" in an evening (after Magnoli simply suggested the film may need a lead-off hit single to fill out the soundtrack) to Wendy & Lisa revealing the gestation of the song "Purple Rain" itself, this is a must-see for Prince fans. Magnoli and Blinn are also frank about which aspects of the film mirror Prince's off-screen life, as well as the film's casting, the low-budget shoot and some incredibly oppressive production conditions.
Finally, "Riffs, Ruffles and a Revolution: The Impact and Influence of Purple Rain" (10 minutes) is a fun wrap-up. After the one-two punch of the album and the movie, the eventual sold-out arena and stadium tour was a masterstroke. If today this whole "Purple Rain hysteria" comes off as mere mythmaking or hyperbole, having lived through the time, I can assure you that Prince was indeed the hottest thing in the summer of 1984.
Wrapping things up is a large assortment of promotional materials. The 28 minutes of "MTV Premiere Party" footage is thrillingly nostalgic -- and hilarious. The hair! The clothes! The '80s superstars! The original MTV VJs! The only mystery is why the guest of honor is in such a bad mood: when Prince finally does arrive, he looks so glum you'd think 'Purple Rain' was the funeral of his career, not the coronation. (Geesh, cheer up dude, you're about to become a legend!)
Next up are eight music videos. Prince gets five ("When Doves Cry," "Let's Go Crazy," "I Would Die 4 U," "Take Me With U" and "Purple Rain"), The Time get two ("Jungle Love," "The Bird"), and then of course there is Apollonia 6's immortal "Sex Shooter." Wonderful '80s cheese, these amount to an overload of huge hair, fishnet stockings and enough purple eye shadow for a week-long Prince convention.
Finally, Warner includes three Theatrical Trailers for the complete Prince filmography: "Purple Rain,' it's woeful sequel 'Graffiti Bridge' and 'Under the Cherry Moon.'
Note that the three-part doc has been upconverted to 1080i/MPEG-2 video, though the quality is still comparable to standard-def (kudos to Warner anyway for at least reformatting for 16:9 screens). The rest of the video-based material is presented in 4:3 windowboxed 480i/MPEG-2 video only.
'Purple Rain' has transcended all barriers to emerge as more than a movie, more than an album -- it's a snapshot of a phenomenal moment in pop culture history. Every single song is a classic, and if the film itself has long become overshadowed by the mystique that is Prince, it still holds up as blistering combination of live performance, music video aesthetic and autobiography.
This HD DVD release, however, is slightly disappointing. While the newly produced supplements are quite strong, neither the video nor the audio offer the level of upgrade that one hopes for with a high-def catalog release of this caliber. Still, as an all-around package, 'Purple Rain' is certainly a solid release, and worth considering as an addition to your collection.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.