Folks, I couldn't leave well enough alone. I wanted to, make that I needed to write another entry for The Great Villain Blogathon 2016. In case you missed it, this is a blogathon co-hosted by a trio of wonderful blogs: Speakeasy, Silver Screenings, and Shadows and Satin. This post entirely undoes my first entry, but it is what it is.
In some movies who is the hero and who is the villain are not a matter of which is good and which is evil. In such cases, it’s a matter of framing. Consider the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” That film’s villain is Nurse Ratched. She isn’t really evil. She’s just a nurse trying to do her job. It so happens that her job is keeping patients in line at a mental facility. Sure, she’s starch stiff, but probably not the bane of humanity she’s made out to be. It’s framed that way, however, and she is now thought of as one of the great screen villains of all-time.
Our de facto villain in Purple Rain is lead singer of The Time, Morris Day, played the man himself. Naturally, he’s a rival to our protagonist, The Kid, played by Prince. There is no friendly competition between them. Morris is actively trying to get The Kid ousted from his spot as a performer at First Avenue, the club where they both work. Sounds pretty cut and dry, right? I thought so. I even wrote my first entry in this year’s Great Villain Blogathon on Morris’s villainy. There’s just one little thing. I was wrong. The Kid is really the bad guy, here. Blasphemy, I know. It’s Prince, one of my personal heroes, not just at the height of his musical powers, but at the precise moment in which he became a megastar. I’m as protective of him as anyone when it comes to people trying to knock him off the pedestal I’ve very carefully placed him on. I’m not here to desecrate his memory or remove him from his lofty spot. I just want to dive a bit deeper into the film that is Purple Rain. Hear me out.
The Kid’s ego is out of control and he’s become a tyrannical band leader. He has completely destroyed their morale by shunning any and all suggestions that require him to relinquish absolute control over every single note they play. Band members Wendy and Lisa are on the verge of leaving the group while others are indifferent towards The Kid, at best. No one actually seems to like him. When they get on stage, they dutifully hit their marks and help him try to work through one personal issue after another. He’s known to occasionally run off the stage mid-song in a rage, leaving them holding the bag. Every moment in front of an audience is an exercise in self-indulgence with no care what anyone else thinks. Audiences have responded to The Kid’s public catharsis by not showing up in the droves they once did. Billy, who owns the club, gives The Kid repeated warnings to shape up or ship out. For his efforts, Billy gets back-talked and ignored.
Morris notices all of this. He sees The kid’s band like the Titanic having already struck the iceberg and slowly sinking into history. Since he wants First Avenue to flourish why wouldn’t he put together a group that could potentially take their place? If the best person to lead that group happens to be Apollonia, The Kid’s girlfriend, so be it. She is, and does a fantastic job during their debut performance. The Kid is not impressed. The only thing that clearly seems to impress The Kid is himself. He keeps everyone else at arms’ length and scoffs at those who dare attempt getting any closer than that. The exceptions to this are two women, his mother and Apollonia, herself. His mother is the only one for whom The Kid seems capable of generating sympathy and genuine tenderness. It’s no surprise given the fact he’s been witnessing her get battered by his dad for who knows how many years.
On the other hand, Apollonia is the person who suffers from The Kid’s most blatantly villainous acts. He is a jealous, possessive, and abusive boyfriend. When Apollonia tells him she’s joined Morris’s group, The Kid’s response is to backhand her and send her flying across the room. Later in the film, his anger causes him to knock her to the floor, straddle her torso, and raise his to give her the full Ike Turner treatment before thinking better of it. This doesn’t even include their first day together where he tricks her into stripping and jumping into a lake on what’s obviously not a warm day in Minnesota. Everyone has on coats and/or scarves with Apollonia herself dressed head to toe in leather. Nearly every action taken by The Kid echoes the chorus of his song “When Doves Cry.” He is just like his father.
Many characters in many movies do heinous things only to blossom into the hero by making a dramatic turnaround. Unfortunately, The Kid’s redemption is shaky, at best. He organizes the physical mess he made at home after his dad’s attempted suicide and finds some songs dad composed. At the club, he hops on stage, agrees to play the song bandmates Lisa and Wendy wrote, the titular tune, everyone’s heart is touched and all is forgiven by the time he launches into the thumptastic “I Would Die 4 U.” We’re to believe The Kid is a changed man, but how? There is no dialogue to steer us in that direction. During the montage spliced in with his performance of that song and “Baby I’m a Star” we see Apollonia show up at his place like everything is all peachy keen with apparently no discussion about him going upside her head. It just feels like he’s going through the normal cycle of abuse he’s been privy to his whole life. I’m no expert, but the way I understand it there’s the abusive action followed by a remorseful/apologetic period, a blissful stage, then restarts with another abusive action. We see this play out in The Kid’s parents. The first time we meet them, dad is slapping mom around. Next, he feels bad about it. Following this they have a make-out session on the couch. Finally, he beats her up again. The Kid is in the same cycle.
Even his use of Wendy and Lisa’s song feels disingenuous. He uses it to get him out of a jam, not out of some magnanimous change of heart. Truth told, he almost botched it. I say this because he never mentions to the band they were going to play it until they walked on stage. Presumably, they have never rehearsed it. It could’ve been a real disaster. As perfectly as it’s played, it still should’ve been a problem. It’s another of the type of song he’s been getting blasted for playing the entire film, a deeply personal tune in which he tries to work through his own issues. Luckily for him it happens to be arguably the greatest power ballad of all-time. Still, one can’t help but wonder what happens when Wendy and Lisa present him with another song after things have settled down and seem to be going well for The Kid. Better yet, what happens next time Apollonia pisses him off?
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