The list of items that Prince fans have clamored for is a long one. Topmost, of course, is unfettered access to the legendary "vault" of unreleased material, followed closely by remastered and expanded CD editions of his seminal '80s work. (Prince's creative masterwork, Sign 'O' the Times, is currently a sonic disgrace on CD, and the various 12-inch mixes and B-sides he's released throughout his career could explode most of his albums into two-CD affairs.) After those, however, the list gets a little more diffuse. But a proper DVD edition of Purple Rain has made it to the "wouldn't it be nice" section of many fans' want lists, given that Warner's original DVD release is a cheap, dark, pan-and-scan stereo version that's more appropriate for, say, Police Academy 8 than for a film that defined the summer of 1984 and helped shift the pop music landscape far beyond that.
Thanks to Prince's recent return to the pop charts with Musicology, it seems that the financial wisdom of granting some wishes has become apparent, which gives us not only a stunning "20th Anniversary" DVD of Purple Rain but also not-so-hotly-anticipated DVDs of 1986's Under the Cherry Moon and 1990's Graffiti Bridge. First the bad news: Anyone who was there the first time knows that there's little need for a DVD version of Under the Cherry Moon, a poorly thought-out ego romp of massively bad proportions. Yes, there are some funny bits and the soundtrack ("Kiss," "Mountains") is excellent; but seeing Prince in a bathtub once in your life is one time too many. Worse still is Graffiti Bridge, the supposed sequel to Purple Rain. The "film" resembles nothing so much as an on-the-cheap music video that's as self-aggrandizing and inscrutable as the songs are wretched. The audio/video quality on both discs is as good as could be expected, but given the color-to-monochrome transfer of UTCM and the shot-on-a-soundstage-on-weekends feel of Graffiti Bridge, a visual feast is not on the menu. Both DVDs are fun, if you're a Prince fan with a willingness to laugh at him. The widescreen/surround presentations are nice, if unnecessary, and the addition of music videos including footage from Prince's surprisingly excellent "Nude" tour on the Graffiti Bridge disc makes it easier to plonk down the reasonable price of $15 for such awful movies.
Now, the good news. It goes without saying that Purple Rain was the event that made Prince a household name, as it was omnipresent during the year of its release. From the release of "When Doves Cry" to the premiere of the movie and on through his sweep of the awards shows, Prince owned 1984 in a way that's allowed him a life of unparalleled creative freedom since then. (Whether that freedom has been altogether good is another debate entirely.) Thus, the cheapness of the previous DVD edition of Purple Rain has been perplexing, but most chalked it up to Prince's longstanding tiff with Warner Bros. This new, two-disc version completely rectifies all the shortcomings of the old disc. Aside from a cheesy menu interface, it's largely perfect and as good a version of the film as is likely ever to be available. (Waiting on those deleted scenes to show up? Don't hold your breath.) The first disc is home to an immaculate and bright widescreen transfer of the film, presented in 5.1 surround sound with commentary tracks from the director, producer and cinematographer. Although digital remastering didn't do much to improve the razor-thin plot that pits Prince against Morris Day in a battle for dominion over Minneapolis' funk scene (!), the newly improved soundtrack does worlds of good for the presentation of one of rock & roll's classic movies; throughout, the DVD sounds exponentially better than the currently available CD.
The bonus disc is fleshed out with three minidocumentaries, the best of which is the one that focuses on Minneapolis' legendary First Avenue nightclub, where the performance scenes were shot. Many of the principals from the film (who all look really old now, except for Prince, who ... didn't show up) chime in on the importance of the club and give a great feel for how diverse and tightly knit the city's scene was then. The other two bits are typical "making of" and "impact of" pieces that provide occasionally interesting insight. However, the inclusion of every music video from Purple Rain from "When Doves Cry" and "Let's Go Crazy" through a jammed-out concert version of "I Would Die 4 U/Baby I'm a Star" to the clips crafted for The Time and Apollonia 6 (yeah, there was a video for "Sex Shooter") and footage from MTV's premiere party makes the second disc nearly as necessary as the first.
It's painful to look back on Purple Rain, see the "fashions," follow the "plotline" and realize that 20 years ago, you were old enough to dig it, but young enough not to care. But the songs and the vitality behind the performances have yet to dim in the intervening years, and for that reason alone, the movie deserves the fine treatment this release gives it.