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DVD Review: Purple Rain/Mayor of Sunset Strip

By Glenn Abel

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photo "Remember when there was this battle between Michael Jackson and Prince?" Chris Rock asks his audience these days. Well, "Prince won."

The gloved one never really had much of a chance, based on the evidence put forth in "Purple Rain," Prince's breakout vanity film from 1984. All of the chops that make Prince a Grammy front-runner this year were present two decades ago, and then some.

Witness, for example, the 8-minute sonic and visual barrage that opens the movie, as Prince and his band tear through "Let's Get Crazy." The film has lost its shock value -- who are all those fashion victims in their underwear? -- but none of its ability to astonish.

"It set a benchmark for pop movies," testifies rock journalist Kurt Loder. "We're still waiting for it to be matched."

Anyone needing a refresher course in Prince musicology will be well served by Warner's double-disc version of the film (retail $26.99). "Purple Rain" was one of the early titles on DVD, in a pan-and-scan version best tossed into the recycling. The "20th Anniversary Edition" returns "Rain" to its original widescreen aspect ratio, with a Dolby 5.1 audio mix that's house-party heavy on the subwoofer.

No surprise, of course, that Prince is nowhere to be found on the extras, given his long contract war with Warner Bros. The telling of the "Purple Rain" story largely is left to director Albert Magnoli and producer Robert Cavallo (who reunite for a commentary) as well as Prince's famed bandmates of the time, Wendy and Lisa.

In addition to the making-of featurette, there's a history of the Minneapolis club made famous by the film and a rah-rah look at "Purple Rain's" legacy in music and fashion. Fans of retro-goofs shouldn't miss MTV's live coverage of the movie's premiere, including Pee-wee Herman's arrival in a bumper car. Eight music videos include the classic "When Doves Cry."

The semi-biographical "Purple Rain" story came from Prince's ideas, jotted down over the years in a purple notebook. Producer Cavallo recalls that the musician had a few simple demands: "I want to star in a movie; I want my name above the title; and I want it to be at a major studio."

The studio was Warner Bros., hot to get Prince onscreen after the critical and commercial success of his WB album "1999." Director Magnoli was hired straight out of USC film school, based on his short film "Jazz." With the exception of actor Clarence Williams III and cinematographer Donald Thorin ("Thief") almost everyone on the project was new to filmmaking. They shot in Prince's hometown of Minneapolis until the freezing cold chased production to L.A.

The young cast members, many of them Prince's pals and co-workers, took quick acting and dancing lessons before being thrust in front of the cameras. Morris Day and his sidekick Jerome Benton, from rival band the Time, proved naturals, leavening Prince's self-importance with street sass and some Abbott and Costello tomfoolery. Club manager Billy Sparks was another find.

The mixture of dodgy acting, raw energy and high spirits gave "Purple Rain" the same infectious appeal found two decades earlier in "A Hard Day's Night" and two decades later in "8 Mile." "It was effortless," Magnoli recalls.

Of course, the eye-roller of a backstage story was mainly wraparound for Prince and the Time's blistering musical numbers. The concert scenes were shot on location in the club over 10 days, using four cameras. Magnoli cites Prince's uncanny ability to hit his marks onstage as the reason they met such a brutal schedule. "I didn't know any better," Magnoli says. "Neither did Prince." The star won an Oscar for his songs, including the breathtaking finale, "Purple Rain."

The director and producer give a lot of credit to studio chiefs Bob Daley and Terry Semel, and senior production exec Mark Canton, all of whom made creative contributions. Cavallo cites then-CAA chieftain Michael Ovitz as an unlikely supporter who emerged after the WB brass had "heart attacks" over the sexual content: "It's not a common theme how Mike Ovitz was fantastic -- but he was always great to us."

Warner also has revived the Prince films "Under the Cherry Moon" (1986) and "Graffiti Bridge" (1990) -- only for forgiving fans.

Filmmaker George Hickenlooper is still stinging over some of the criticism he took over "Mayor of the Sunset Strip," his documentary about Rodney Bingenheimer, the Zelig of L.A.'s rock scene.

Most critics loved the film, but a few saw it as a sad and voyeuristic look at an aging hipster.

"How could I be heartbreaking?" Bingenheimer puzzles on a commentary track as he watches the film, which is packed with rock royalty paying tribute to the longtime KROQ disc jockey.

"It's what Rodney wanted," Hickenlooper says on his commentary, pointing out that a lot of unflattering material was left out. Plus, the director notes, "Rodney is doing better with the ladies since the movie came out."

First Look Home has released "Mayor of the Sunset Strip" in a single-disc edition (retail $24.98) that packs in several hours of good outtakes. The terrific soundtrack thrives in an unusually active and creative mix. Video quality varies wildly, given the five-decade span of the footage.

Hickenlooper says he saw Bingenheimer's odd tale as a metaphor for contemporary culture and its fascination with celebrity. Most of the filmmaker's 90 or so interviews with rock personalities touched on fame and its effects, but a lot of the material didn't make the cut. Fortunately, some highlights are included as DVD extras.

Pop stardom is "like winning the lottery," says Alice Cooper, who notes that celebs have lost their "mystique" in the Internet age. "There was much more mystery" in the 1960s.

"Everyone thinks you have the answers," says Davy Jones of the Monkees.

Gwen Stefani of No Doubt, a natural-born celeb, says she copes by making like a duck, with all the adoration and hassles just rolling off her feathers.

Ray Manzarek of the Doors, not surprisingly, has a darker view. When you become suddenly famous, he says, "The Devil opens the door," letting in "a howling mob of demons." Thinking of his friend Jim Morrison, he adds, "Some people die."

Glenn Abel is Executive Editor, Electronic, at The Hollywood Reporter

Reprinted, with permission, from The Hollywood Reporter

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