There’s so much great film programming in the Boston area that some nights I wish it were possible to be two places at once. In a strange accident of timing, two seminal rock ‘n’ roll films from the 1980s are screening this Thursday night on opposite ends of town. As part of their regular “On the Fringe: Adventures in Cult Cinema” series and wrapping up the “Gender Bending Fashion on Film” program, the Museum of Fine Arts is showing “Purple Rain,” the exquisitely overwrought 1984 musical melodrama that transformed a Prince into a legend. At the same time on the Red Line, the Somerville Theatre closes out their “Reel Films/Fake Bands” retrospective with a rare 35mm screening of the little-seen 1982 punk curio “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains.”
Dumped into a handful of theaters and never released on home video until 2008, “Stains” became a staple of ‘80s late night television as the most popular movie on the USA Network’s after-hours grab bag “Night Flight” — which fellow insomniacs may fondly recall as a potpourri of cult films, music videos and oddball errata best sampled around 2 a.m. when you’ve just stumbled home stoned. The most star-studded movie of which you’ve probably never heard, this scattershot social satire stars Diane Lane, Laura Dern and Marin Kanter as scantily clad teenage rockers who become pop culture phenoms despite a striking absence of musical talent. After all, who needs ability when you’ve got attitude?
The girl group flees their crummy Pennsylvania mill town and hits the road with a collapsing band of washed-up musicians. The ramshackle tour is headlined by a wheezy Alice Cooper wannabe played by Fee Waybill of The Tubes, supported by some snarling British punks who don’t realize they’ve already passed their sell-by date. (Fronted by an unrecognizably svelte Ray Winstone, the band is rounded out by Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones and Paul Cook, along with The Clash’s Paul Simonon.) All these dudes soon find themselves eclipsed by the young starlets on their bus.
“I’m perfect but nobody in this s---hole gets me because I don’t put out,” growls Lane’s Corrine “Third Degree” Burns, the Stains’ acerbic, 15-year-old frontwoman. Scripted by “Slap Shot” screenwriter Nancy Dowd — who’d just won an Oscar for “Coming Home” — the film was originally written in collaboration with rock journalist Caroline Coon and intended as a much more authentic take on the recording industry. But director Lou Adler, himself a music mogul who produced “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” had just helmed Cheech and Chong’s “Up in Smoke” and obviously had other ideas. Lots of them.
After all sorts of clashes and humiliations, including being groped by a camera operator, Dowd eventually walked off the set and had her name removed from the film (the script is credited to “Rob Morton.”) The final product has a strangely schizophrenic quality that oddly adds to the movie’s mystique. Teasing their knee-jerk nihilism while taking just as many potshots at the band’s detractors, the movie never really figures out if it’s come to praise our proto-riot grrrls or to bury them. But Lane’s snarling, skunk-haired stage presence nevertheless inspired a generation of female rock stars, with the likes of Courtney Love and Bikini Kill’s Tobi Vail citing her as a formative influence. (I’m certain Becky Something of the recent “Her Smell” had a “Stains” bootleg stashed somewhere on her tour bus.)
Cartoonishly broad pop culture parody alternates with scenes of surprising tenderness. There’s a drug overdose played for wacky laughs which then gets walloped with an emotional sucker-punch by Dern, who at only 13 years old was already hard at work being the best thing about whatever movie she’s in. “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains” ultimately feels like a bunch of people who aren’t quite sure what they’re doing but occasionally happen upon something amazing, which I guess is what punk rock is all about.
Dearly beloved, what else is there to say about this thing called “Purple Rain?” Since the shock of Prince’s death three years ago, local screenings of the film have come to feel more like revival meetings, all of us returning to once again bask in the glow of the Purple One at the height of his powers. It’s a truly bizarre movie, at once atrocious and awesome — featuring musical performances so sublime you instantly forgive that the rest is so ridiculous. The quality gulf between onstage exhilaration and backstage soap opera here is roughly the size of Mother Russia. Playing an up-and-coming guitar god known only as The Kid, Prince’s personality seems to shrink to a fraction of its size whenever the music’s over.
Luckily the songs don’t stop very often, and “Purple Rain” has a soundtrack comprised almost entirely of all-timers. Fresh out of film school when the movie was made, director Albert Magnoli said he wanted to structure the musical numbers like the baptism scene from “The Godfather,” layering all of the plot threads on top of the songs in a continuous flow, furthering the editing innovations being made by music videos at the time. His approach whittles dialogue scenes down to merciful fragments, with most of the emotional payoffs coming from the characters singing at one another from nightclub stages rather than speaking one-on-one. (Every time I watch the movie, I’m shocked all over again at how terrible Prince is at talking.)
He may have already been hugely popular on dance and R&B charts, but “Purple Rain” was Prince’s deliberate move for mainstream superstardom, shoving his way into the guitar-driven arena rock that was strictly middle American, white boy territory at the time. What was this dude’s deal? Was he black? Was he gay? Who dresses like that while riding a motorcycle? Prince cannily didn’t do a single interview to promote “Purple Rain,” leaving the movie to serve as his heavily mythologized, unofficial autobiography.
Like most films made in the early 1980s, “Purple Rain” is hardly progressive in its gender politics, with some of the most famous moments revolving around The Kid’s ugly mistreatment of co-star Apollonia Kotero. (There’s also an early, unfortunate bit in which members of rival group the Time toss one of Morris Day’s girlfriends into a dumpster for yuks.) Yet, I do believe the movie’s heart is ultimately in the right place, with Prince’s character slowly gathering the fortitude to break the cycle of abuse he’s inherited from his drunken, suicidal dad (played by a scary and pathetic Clarence Williams III).
We’re told throughout that The Kid’s art is suffering from his selfishness — something more said than shown, since these are some of the most blistering musical performances ever captured on film — but in the end he’s only capable of coming into his own as an artist when he learns to put his ego aside and collaborate with Prince’s real-life Revolution band members Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman. That’s how The Kid winds up writing the legendary title track, and so I feel like “Purple Rain” ends with about as much grace and humility as one can possibly display while singing “Baby I’m a Star.”