It’s Friday at the Derby Film Festival! And I Only Want to See You Laughing in the Purple Rain

by Elliot Davies

Purple Rain Derby Film Festival

The Derby Film Festival has been taken over by Fantastiq! Gorehounds abound, but before we join them, we must first pay our respects to The Purple One.

Film festival programmes are liquid. Let’s take a look at some of the changes that have taken place since the 2016 Derby Film Festival kicked off a week ago:

  • Screenings of Being Evel, the Evel Knievel documentary, were cancelled
  • Barbara Shelley’s talk has been cancelled as she’s been hospitalised, and we wish her all the best
  • In place of Barbara Shelley’s talk will be an audience with Julie Peasgood (Julie Peasgood!), Alan Titchmarsh’s resident sexpert and hero of soap and genre television
  • Sir Ben Kingsley (Sir Ben Kingsley!) will be stopping by to discuss his illustrious career in stage and screen

But something world-shaking went down the week before the festival was due to kick off, resulting in a welcome last minute addition to the programme.

The world lost Prince. So as a tribute, they’re screening Purple Rain (1984).

It’s an inspired choice. They’re using Screen One, the biggest screen, and it’s sold out. It’s great to see so many Prince fans gathered in one place. It feels nice.

They’ve gone all out. Televisions in the lobby play a loop of Prince’s time spent with the Muppets. There’s purple bunting adorned with his unpronounceable symbol. They’ve cleared a space in the bar to create a dancefloor, and they’ve promised to play as many Prince songs as they can.

People seem happy. It feels like a lot of people have been waiting for something like this. It’s not so much a chance to say goodbye as it is a chance to spend a little bit of time with people who understand.

Purple Rain is Prince’s story. Sort of. Prince plays The Kid. He and his band The Revolution routinely put on stunning sets at a small club in Minneapolis. Yet they’re not pulling in the crowds. Instead, the people are flocking to see Prince’s bitter rival, Morris Day and his band The Time. It requires an immense suspension of disbelief to accept that people would ever have chosen Morris Day over Prince, but there you go.

His band is starting to resent him. He’s fast becoming a laughing stock among the Minneapolis musical elite. And worst of all, at home the situation is critical. Prince’s father, a failed jazz musician, is a smouldering tower of bitterness and frustration who thinks nothing of venting his anger on his wife and his son.

Something’s got to change. And it does. An aspiring singer arrives in town. She’s Apollonia, and she’s going to be big. The Kid soon becomes smitten. Everything might be OK…so long as he can avoid transforming into his dad.

Purple Rain Derby Film Festival

Very few people in Purple Rain are actors, but they’re all performers. So while the odd line of dialogue might fall flat, the timing’s always spot on, and everyone’s committed to their roles. And needless to say, the soundtrack is incredible. That’s why we’re all here, after all.

The Purple Rain soundtrack is impossibly excellent. It’s miraculous. Transcendent. It’s life itself. I already knew it was perfect. But having finally seen the film itself, I can now appreciate it on a completely new level. There’s some real depth to the songs – some real pathos – that I always felt was there. But now that I know exactly what’s going on, I’m starting to feel that the word “genius” doesn’t quite go far enough.

Obviously, the “maybe I’m just like my father” line in When Doves Cry says a lot, but the real revelation is the segue in the middle of Computer Blue. It’s always been my least favourite song on the album. Compared to everything else, it just sounds like a fluffy throwaway. But in the film, it’s made clear that keening guitar in the segue is based on a piano melody played by The Kid’s father in a desolate mood as he rapidly approaches rock bottom.

It’s the first time he’s played in years, and The Kid obviously sees it as a sign that his talent must not be squandered. This could be me. So in desperation, The Kid replicates it onstage to a disinterested crowd.

Is he honouring his father? Is he exploring his roots? Is he trying to reconnect? Or is he so mired in writer’s block that he’ll take inspiration from anywhere, no matter how much it pains him?

That’s quite a lot to pack into a single guitar solo. And that it’s followed by an absolutely filthy performance of Darling Nikki is… a little bit jarring onscreen, but it speaks volumes of Prince’s complexity as an artist, and his versatility as a performer.

And he looks amazing. Everyone does. Morris Day and The Time are suave and sharp in their immaculate suits, but Prince and The Revolution look like visitors from a fabulous utopia. If we ignore his keyboard player in his surgical scrubs, Wendy & Lisa have a new romantic cyber goth thing going on, while Prince himself is…wow.

He effortlessly becomes the centre of gravity in any room he enters. With his sharp shoulders and flowing purple gown, it becomes even harder to buy the idea that anyone might have doubted him. When he arrives on his purple Honda, it looks like he’s coming in to land having descended from the sky.

Purple Rain Derby Film Festival

When Bowie died earlier this year, a few people talked about how lucky they felt to have existed on the same timeline as him. I didn’t quite understand what they meant. I just wanted him to…not be dead. But watching Purple Rain, I finally understand. Prince doesn’t feel real. He never did. Watching him work his magic and bare his soul, it starts to feel like we didn’t deserve him.

When The Kid finally takes to the stage to play the title track, all feels hopeless. But he meekly dedicates the song to his father, and nobly reveals that the song was written by Wendy & Lisa, and then comes…that chord.

I can feel every pair of eyes in the room well-up. It wasn’t just me. It can’t have been.

And by the time he reaches the end of the performance, the crowd in the cinema reacted identically to the crowd onscreen – with rapturous applause.

And of course, the performance is followed by a celebration of life – I Would Die 4 U and Baby I’m A Star. And by now it’s a full-blown party in Screen One, with large sections of the crowd actually stood and dancing.

But as Prince turns to face the camera in the closing freeze frame, there’s some audible sighs amid the applause. He’s gone. And yet, here we are.

Few things make me happier than being part of a packed cinema crowd that’s soaking up something they genuinely want to see. I knew that tonight would be more of a celebration than a lamentation, but I wasn’t prepared for this.