Purple Rain/Labyrinth: Examining the pop culture legacy of Prince and David Bowie.

 

*Disclaimer This was originally written as an assignment in my 20th Century Culture Class, just as an article on Purple Rain, but I just saw Labyrinth in the theaters the other night for the 30th Anniversary screening so wanted to talk about that too.  I imagine the final college paper version of this will be edited down a little bit, but here’s my  full thoughts on both Purple Rain and Labyrinth,  I think you’ll enjoy this one.

 

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In 2016 we lost two of the greatest musical artists of the 20th Century in Prince and David Bowie.  Not only did they make some of the best music of the last century and into the beginning parts of this century, they will also live on forever in two iconic movie performances, Prince, in Purple Rain, and David Bowie as the Goblin King, Jareth, in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.    I recently had the privilege of seeing both films in their original intended format as big screen theatrical releases, and I’m going to write about those experiences now, and my experiences with the films as a whole.

I’ll start off this article with my viewing of Prince’s Purple Rain a few weeks ago at the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk.    This particular experience I can imagine was not too far off from how it was originally seen back upon its release in 1984, an old fashioned movie theater, with the small, nigh uncomfortable fold down seats, the semi sticky floor and a movie screen that was on top of a stage that could double for a performance room if need be.

I never saw this movie until now, mainly because I was just a child, 4 years old, when this R rated movie was released, and hadn’t seen the movie at any time since just on happenstance, was one of those movies that I was culturally aware of, but never really went to seek out for whatever reason.  But, now, upon the occasion of Prince’s passing, I figured it was a good time to go see this movie for myself, to hear those classic songs like “Let’s Get Crazy,” “Darling Nikki”, and the eponymous “Purple Rain” once more, and to see them in the context of this movie, and not just random songs I’d heard here and there over the course of my life.

The movie itself is nothing really too spectacular to talk about as a work of film.  But it was one of the first visual albums, as every song on his album got a full on performance scene in the movie, and even some of Prince’s contemporaries and proteges like Appolonia and Morris Day and The Time get a few songs in there as well.   The music itself is iconic, and there are certain scenes in the movie that are that as well, but only because of how great the music was.  The movie itself, without the music, would likely be forgotten today, but it’s the music that’s timeless.  Prince’s guitar playing alone is why you should listen to him and see this movie.  The plot itself is almost non-existent, a loosely autobiographical tale of Prince, playing “The Kid” an aspiring musician in Minnesota, and his dealings with his abusive father and how he’s coming to terms with that and himself as a musician, along the way falling in love/discovering Appolonia from the crowd in the nightclub he plays at.

This movie was released right in the prime time of the 1980s music and music video scene thanks to MTV, so music videos were huge, and thus made the artists who performed them from stars to icons of their generation, and this is what Purple Rain did for Prince.   Firmly establishing himself into the zeitgeist of the 20th century’s pop cultural canon.

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Another film from just two short years later also owed a huge debt to music videos and well imagination in general, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.   Now this movie was/is primarily viewed as children’s entertainment, a fantasy film from one of the best creative minds of the 20th Century, Jim Henson, but it also owes a bit to David Bowie as well, who starred in the film as the film’s antagonist, Jareth, the Goblin King, but also contributed a few songs to the soundtrack of the movie as well, each of which gets their own music video sequence in the movie as well, which sometimes advance the plot, sometimes are just showcases for the talents of David Bowie and some awesome visuals, but the songs, such as “Magic Dance” are just as fantastic, and the movie’s epic scale is added to by his music and his performance in the movie.

For a villain he’s never really seen as particularly evil, he’s not so much an antagonist as just another character in the story, albeit essentially the other main character, the reason the plot moves forward in the first place is his taking of the baby, the reason why Jennifer Connelly has to go into the world of the Labyrinth to begin with.  He’s not good, he’s not evil, he’s simply The Goblin King, simply David Bowie in a crazy fantasy wig and outfit.

Now for this particular screening it was at a more modern theater, it was a 30th anniversary screening of the film at my local AMC, so the atmosphere wasn’t the same as it was when the film was first released 30 years ago, but you still got the same feeling out of watching this grand fantasy play out on this epic screen.  You get to really appreciate the details that Jim Henson and Company put into creating this fantastical world on the big screen that you might not get while watching at home.   It’s quite remarkable, especially in this day of all cgi wonders, an all practical effect movie is a bit of a rarity, and you really are left with a huge appreciation for the talent that went into the making of this movie, this Frank L. Baum mashup with Maurice Sendak by way of the creative vision of Jim Henson.    Myself for this movie, while I was of the age to see this movie theatrically, I never did until just last night.  I’d only seen it on rented VHS tapes or HBO airings, it was a part of my childhood, but not the biggest part.

There was a scene in this movie that really spoke to me, a metaphor that I could not have grasped the concept of as a child.  It’s towards the end of the movie, when Jennifer Connelly’s character wakes up from a poisoned peach hallucination dance sequence with David Bowie in a junkyard, and she encounters a female junkyard creature covered in various things.  She opens a door and thinks she’s returned home only to find that this too is part of the illusion, and the junkyard woman begins to pile on top of her, her precious items of childhood memory that she was holding on to, old toys, trophies, etc, until they begin to pile on top of her and become her much like the junkyard woman herself.  It’s here that she realizes that she needs to let go of these things in order to move forward in her quest, to move on with her life.

It’s a metaphor for having to let go of the past, and how the past, especially our childhood, can hold us back from where we need to go, where we need to be in life.  It’s a metaphor that Hollywood could truly learn from, what with its current endless glut of remakes of things from our childhoods, and sequels to movies from 20 years ago, we don’t get anything new made anymore.  We can’t get another movie, original, fresh, like Labyrinth because they’re too busy trying to remake everything from the era of originality that brought us great art like that.    It’s one thing to love the stuff of the past, and call back on it from time to time, as Jennifer does at the end of the film, with calling back all her friends from the fantasy realm, but it’s another to hold on to all these things so that you’re too weighted down to move forward.

In conclusion, if you were to look at Purple Rain, and Labyrinth by themselves, they couldn’t be anything further from apart, but when you break down the legacy both films have left, then you can see how both artists Prince, David Bowie, and even Jim Henson, have left their mark on the zeitgeist of pop culture for eternity.

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