Last weekend, movie theaters across the country screened Purple Rain in Prince's honor. Many reported sellouts, including at least two here in Houston Saturday night. I was at one of those screenings, the 10 p.m. showing at the Alamo Drafthouse/Mason Road. My brother Adrian was at another one across town at AMC Willowbrook.
The next day we traded notes on our experiences among Prince’s Houston fans, and the common element we noticed was how funereal both screenings seemed to be. Over at AMC, the setting was more reserved, like a stoic memorial service. At the Alamo, where they were pouring beer and a drink special called "Purple Rain" — blasphemy, according to my brother, who reminded me Prince was a famed teetotaler — it was more like an Irish wake.
For instance, the AMC crowd got the routine coming attractions, while we Alamo-goers enjoyed Prince videos like “Little Red Corvette” before the feature presentation. They even showed the Chappelle's Show "True Hollywood Stories" sketch where Charlie Murphy remembers playing basketball against His Royal Badness, and the audience laughed as if it hadn't seen the bit 100 times already. Murphy was suddenly the guy at the wake who shares humorous tales about the deceased to misdirect our shared grief.
At Alamo, our hostess encouraged singing during the songs but discouraged talking during the film, or “we will drown your ass in Lake Minnetonka,” she said. Actually, both crowds applauded after several of the film’s songs. At AMC, the loudest applause was for “I Would Die 4 U.” According to Adrian, women at his screening were “swooning when he was dancing. When the gratuitous shot of his ass-shaking hit, they all screamed.” At the Alamo, many engaged in the arm sway during “Purple Rain,” but in both auditoriums, people were respectful of how others expressed their grief.
“As a fan, that shit was cool, to sit there with other fans and miss him all together, at the same time,” said Adrian, who once survived witnessing Prince live in concert with our mother as his date. “I guess it was kind of like our own viewing and burial.”
Some thoughts about the film itself:
- How sexy is Prince? On film, he’s so alluring that he takes Apollonia to the lake, tricks her into exposing her breasts, watches as she rolls in the dirt trying to put her leather pants back onto her wet skin (a near impossible feat, btw), peels off as if he’s leaving her behind and guns his bike twice as she’s trying to hop on — and still gets a kiss on that date. In the audience at both screenings, the ladies screamed with glee when he peeled off his puffy shirt.
- How did Billy, the rotund, shit-talking owner of First Avenue, keep the place in business? Clearly, if he was planning to displace The Revolution for Apollonia 6, he was at least as bad a businessman as Donald Drumpf. Even if he wanted some glorified strippers on his stage (they do have dollar bills thrust at them during their lone musical performance in the film), was he really going to choose Dez Dickerson’s Modernaires over The Kid? (No disrespect, Dez. You’re still the man.) One thing I will say for Billy — he knew how to rock a velour jumpsuit.
- If being the worst actor in Purple Rain was a horse race, everyone in the film would have been involved in a photo finish. It might sound like hero worship, but Prince was the best actor in the movie. As my wife said, he looked natural because he was basically delivering a semi-autobiographical performance. My brother said he’d have to go with Clarence Williams III, the professional actor who portrayed The Kid’s father. That role linked his Mod Squad days of the 1960s to his turn as Samson in Dave Chappelle’s Half-Baked. But everyone else was a nominee for Golden Raspberry (Beret) awards.
- During The Kid’s tirade against his father, in which he bursts into the house and screams, “Where are you, motherfucker?!" viewers in both theaters giggled. There were full belly laughs from some at the Alamo when Prince, still searching, does a full twirl as if onstage instead of confronting his abusive father.
- The best line of dialogue is delivered by Prince's keyboardist, Lisa Coleman, who went on to a career with the Revolution’s Wendy Melvoin as Wendy and Lisa. When The Kid finds them alone playing music in the rehearsal hall and asks why they’re there, Lisa plays the organ intro to “Let’s Go Grazy” and quips: “I’m hear to tell ya…there’s something else…our music.”
Today, we’re willing to overlook its poorly delivered, trite dialogue because Purple Rain is about the incredible music, which is the same reason we overlooked these flaws 30 years ago. Nobody cared if these real-life musicians were pressed into sudden acting gigs. We went to hear the amazing songs and watch some killer dance moves from both The Time and Prince. Maybe a quarter-century from now, people will still be watching for these performances.
We chatted with a few moviegoers, fellow Prince fans who agreed to share their histories following the artist. Gaysha first heard Prince when a cousin played Dirty Mind for her years ago, and last saw him at his 2006 Warehouse Live appearance, which turned out to be his last performance in H-Town.
“I can tell you, I was totally heartbroken. I am like a major Prince fan,” she said before the screening. “My father recently passed away, and he was the one who took me to my first concert, Purple Rain.”
She was there with Sylvia, a longtime friend who was wearing a Prince tour T-shirt.
“Gaysha and I have been best friends for like 17 years, and we were at Hofheinz together (for Prince’s 2000 Hit N Run Tour),” she said. “Last night we were at Fitzgerald’s celebrating, we stayed till the last song, which was ‘Purple Rain,’ and we just had to do our own little tribute and come out tonight.”
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The ladies were trading photos with a fellow Prince fan, Virginia, in Alamo’s lobby, under the Purple Rain marquee.
“This is my biggest regret, that I never got to see him. I was either always too busy or I didn’t have the money," Virginia told us, with tears in her eyes. "But I loved him as an artist because he was there for my best times and he was there for my worst times. His music told my feelings without me having to say them. I didn’t know him. But he knew me. Does that make sense?”
Yes, Virginia. In these early days after his passing, it’s one of the few things that does.
Purple Rain is now playing through Thursday at selected Houston-area AMC theaters. See amctheaters.com for details.