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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

The Cool Thing

Purple Rain is more than a movie; it is myth in a frockcoat, the myth of a man and the times he helped create, masking its raw and tragic energy behind the sheen of silk and a coy sneer. It is an exploration of an ego blown so large as to become universal, expressive of the desires and fears of an entire generation. Where eighties pop extravagance meets absolute funk, where adolescent angst meets artistic genius, where the personal meets the epic, there falls Purple Rain.

I wish I had come to it sooner. For teenagers in the eighties, such a movie must have felt like a godsend. Not only does it epitomize the existential crisis of adolescence, it concretizes the restless anxiety of a decade caught between decadence and decay. Watching it for the first time as a college undergrad, I can only sense the power of the film’s initial immediacy from a historical distance. What remains for me is the timeless core, the parable.

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today 2 get through this thing called life.” With these prophetic words, Prince calls his subjects to join him in his strange, startling vision. It is a vision of life seen through lilac-colored glasses, just a bit darker than the rose variety. It is dominated by an expressionist aesthetic in which nothing exists that is not relevant to the film’s world-view. Color, light, costume and character, composition and dialogue are highly stylized, organized in tensions between comic and tragic, real and symbolic, sexy and creepy. This is the world seen a psychological dystopia, a projection of the mind’s dual nature upon a mythic landscape. The hero of this myth, the axis of tension, the ego, is Prince.

Few other performers (Elvis Presley, Madonna, and David Bowie spring to mind) have understood as well as Prince the importance of the rock star as mythic hero in American culture. He has made celebrity an art. Prince’s career has in large part been engaged with the manipulation of this concept, and this project reaches its artistic zenith in Purple Rain. What Prince does here, and this is a ballsy and brilliant move, is to commit so completely to the glorification of his own ego that he transcends it. What remains is the ego as universal symbol, a vessel full of tropes; in other words, a Hero.

That part of Prince’s image is sexual is obvious. Purple Rain simply palpitates with sex (the one actual sex scene is boldly honest, graphic to the point of poetry); Prince is quite literally a sex symbol. That is to say, a libido symbol. It is the psychological forces of ego and libido, the drive of the artist and the drive of the lover, that organize the world of Purple Rain.

Ego and libido have always been central to Prince’s music. Certainly this is the case with the songs that comprise the score for Purple Rain. In a way, the film is a visual manifestation of this music, an expansion of it into the fully dramatic realm. Interplay between image and sound is created between the film and its soundtrack; the film serves to concentrate what is suggested in the music, and the music in the film creates an aural landscape that lends mood and innuendo to the visual. And it rocks.

Speaking of music, I used a phrase earlier, “absolute funk”; I’d like to explain what I mean by this because I believe this the key to Purple Rain, it’s theme and message.

“Funk” is a tension constantly relaxing and re-tensing, a tension between loose and tight, rough and smooth, cool and crazy. It’s a relentless of energy between dualities. It’s nervy and propulsive, and gritty as all get out. The “absolute funk” is funk extended to a worldview, made into a reality through a work of art.

In Purple Rain, everything is funky, that is to say fecund, organic, charged with life and sex drive. It is Dionysian in it’s celebration of the rawness and fertility of existence, spiritual in it’s unification of pain and pleasure as salvation. It is the “absolute funk” and Prince is its master.

It’s hard to imagine a film like this being made today. It’s unflinching examination of the sexual and its unconventional mixture of party and tragedy (something that I haven’t seen in a musical since the great All That Jazz) are far too edgy for any of today’s market-oriented pop purveyors to dare to touch. Beyond that, there just aren’t many popsters out there with the Prince’s charisma. No one funks it up as profoundly as he does. Purple Rain is, in the end, his own personal vision. And it is a great one.

After all, he is Prince. And he is funky. Absolutely.