For his film debut, Prince chose to make a semi-autobiographical musical, a subgenre that's worked wonders for everyone from Al Jolson to Eminem. The format eases acting neophytes into the challenges of a new medium by letting them play roles they've perfected: themselves. (Or thinly fictionalized versions of themselves, at least.) At its most effective, the approach elevates autobiography to pop mythology, and few examples have captured the cultural and musical zeitgeist as indelibly as Purple Rain, which has just been released in a two-disc set commemorating its 20th anniversary (alongside the separate release of the later Prince film vehicles Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge).
Less-than-loosely based on the life of its star, Purple Rain casts Prince as a struggling, brilliant, mercurial Minneapolis musician locked in competition with his flashy, theatrical rival The Time and his own demons, most notably an abusive father (Clarence Williams III) and a dangerous inability to get close to people. In the film, Prince overcomes his fear of collaboration and need for control through an electrifying final concert, which makes it ironic that in real life, Prince moved in the opposite direction, parting ways with his record label and his band The Revolution, and directing all future film projects himself.
Purple Rain captures Prince in his creative prime, when his hunger, talent, and immense work ethic combined to make him one of the biggest stars in the world. As a showcase for his songwriting and showmanship, the film fully justifies its place in the pop-culture pantheon, but as a movie, it's a muddle of bad acting, hackneyed melodrama, clumsy exposition, arbitrary conflicts, and dime-store Freudianism. Prince has always been simultaneously exhibitionistic and remote, a quality Purple Rain exploits without delving too deep under its surface, in the process underlining the slim difference between the tantalizingly enigmatic and the thinly conceived. The film tries to explain Prince through reductive psychology when it would be better off retaining the mystery at the singer's core.
Providing context of a different sort, the double-disc set packs on the extras, including an audio commentary from the filmmakers, behind-the-scenes documentaries, music videos—including Apollonia 6's wonderfully titled "Sex Shooter"—and, most fascinatingly, MTV's coverage of Purple Rain's première, a time-capsule riot of random celebrities (Weird Al! John Mellencamp! Little Richard! Eddie Murphy! Pee-wee Herman!), bad hair, questionable fashions, and '80s cheese.