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The Audacious Joy of ‘Purple Rain’

David Shoemaker
David Shoemaker

Yesterday, sacrilegiously, I was having a hard time feeling sad. That’s because I was listening to Prince.

Yes, the Purple One is responsible for writing one of the greatest tearjerkers in the history of pop music (and even on a good day, just thinking of the opening chords of “Purple Rain” can give me a lump in my throat). But by and large, there is too much joy, humor, and outright celebration in his music for it to serve as a monochromatic soundtrack to mourning. I felt a similar thing a few months ago when I tried to stay sad for David Bowie — the spirit of his music was constantly tugging my emotions in the opposite direction. The odd pathos of “Life on Mars?” would always segue into the goofy waltz of “Kooks,” and before I realized it I’d be grinning. And so it went yesterday afternoon when I instinctively hit play on Purple Rain: That opening benediction felt eerie, prophetic, a little too raw (“Dearly beloved … we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life”), but no matter the circumstances, once that beat comes in, something primal takes over. All you can do is get up. Sudden death shines a black light over an artist’s work, illuminating all sorts of secret messages that have been hidden in plain sight. They’re all over “Let’s Go Crazy” now, but they’re strangely jubilant: “Before the grim reaper comes knocking on your door / Tell me baby / Are we gonna let the elevator bring us down? Oh no, let’s go!”

And there is perhaps no better way to celebrate the ridiculous excess, undaunted ambition, and audacious joy of Prince than by revisiting what I believe to be one of the greatest music movies of all time, Purple Rain. I love this movie deeply, cultishly, and nostalgically, because nobody will ever make one like this again. Viewed today, it’s a relic of the ’80s in the best way possible: the fashion, the sense of monocultural importance, the fact that the special-edition DVD extras feature interviews with Weird Al, Eddie Murphy, and Pee-wee Herman (conducted by MTV’s Mark Goodman, at that). Though it’s not the most challenging piece of art he ever made (the three-act melodrama has aged not nearly as well as the performances), Purple Rain is Prince’s most explicit attempt to create and control his own mythology as a pop star, and for that it’s fascinatingly prescient. Modern icons like Beyoncé and Kanye owe a great debt to Prince’s gloriously unchecked ego.

The DVD box tells me that Purple Rain is 111 minutes long, but I don’t think I’ve ever experienced it that way. Sometimes it’s shorter (whenever it’s on VH1, I am rendered unable to change the channel), but most often it’s longer, because if I’m watching it with a group, someone is inevitably going to yell out an impossible-to-ignore demand, like, “Can we just watch all of ‘Darling Nikki’ again?” or, “Rewind to the Lake Minnetonka scene!” or, “Wait, where’s the part where he humps the stage?” The last 10 minutes of the film, a back-to-back performance of “I Would Die 4 U” and “Baby I’m a Star,” is so fantastic that I usually just end up watching the whole scene twice. Purple Rain is a feedback loop, a state of mind, a private party in a box. And in an odd way, it’s the most fitting artifact that Prince left behind — a poignant, joyful, handcrafted ode to his own celebrity.

This piece originally appeared in the April 22, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.