[Essay] Making Myth: Purple Rain and The Assassination of Jesse James — Dan Norman

From the earliest oral tales passed down through generations, storytelling has been creating legends around the lives of real-life individuals. In the 21st century the techniques have evolved but that instinct is still there. Purple Rain fulfils the role of formative mythology for its star, Prince, and his music. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford delves into the legend of Jesse James, public reaction to it, and ultimately, how his own mythology shaped his life.

Purple Rain belongs to the subgenre of movies in which a real-life musician plays themselves, or a thinly-veiled version of themselves. Films such as A Hard Day’s Night and the many Elvis movies both played on and informed public perception of their musical stars. Purple Rain came out in 1984, when Prince was well-known but not on the global superstar level of The Beatles, Elvis or his contemporary Michael Jackson. Purple Rain changed all that, and the movie’s soundtrack (also entitled Purple Rain) became the best-selling and most popular album of Prince’s career. On August 4th 1984, Prince was responsible for the number one charting album, single (“When Doves Cry”) and film in the U.S.A. Warner Bros.’ feature film gamble on making Prince a superstar had proven successful.

The task of director Albert Magnoli and his credited co-writer William Blinn was to create a film that would showcase Prince’s musical abilities whilst crafting a story that would endear him to mainstream America. They did this by making Purple Rain an underdog story – creating a fictionalised backstory for Prince. Everyone around Prince uses their real names – his backing band, The Revolution, were Prince’s real band; love interest Apollonia Kotero was one of Prince’s many protégés, antagonist Morris Day and his band The Time were another Minneapolis based act for whom Prince wrote. Prince’s character, however, is given no name other than The Kid. The Kid is explicitly not Prince, and his story is not the same as Prince’s, but he superficially shares a great deal in common with Prince, and so becomes a stand-in. The Kid’s upbringing in an abusive home elicits sympathy for the character and patience for his bad behaviour. His shared beginnings with The Revolution in Minneapolis, playing small clubs, creates a familial bond between them and enhances the audience’s desire to see them transcend their environment. None of this corresponds with Prince’s own background, but the desire to see The Kid succeed subtextually becomes transferred to the real-life figure of Prince.

Purple Rain sunglasses

Magnoli bookends the plot with extended sequences of Prince and The Revolution performing on-stage, utilising his star’s phenomenal abilities as a live act. In these scenes, the visuals enhance the audio, as the quick cutting forms a semi-montage and matches the high energy of the songs. Opening the film on this note compensates for Prince’s inexperience as an actor. Everything in the film revolves around him, and his electric presence onstage justifies the film’s interest in him to the audience. The film is at its best in the concert moments – which have the same function in this film as big action sequences do in Hollywood blockbusters – so the film leaves the audience on a high with an extended encore. Everybody in the film is united together to support Prince, and the copious shots of an enraptured audience are intended to influence the film’s audience into also viewing Prince as a megastar.

Purple Rain audience

While nakedly aiming to mythologise Prince, what makes Purple Rain worthwhile is the sense that it does manage to partially encapsulate the personality of its star. The story itself is very generic and cliché, but by rooting it in the Minneapolis sound background from which Prince emerged, it feels more authentic. The purple aesthetic likewise links the film to Prince’s individuality, and the characterisation of Wendy and Lisa – members of The Revolution – builds on mythology which Prince’s live act had already put in place. As it creates an alternative backstory for Prince, it also creates a backstory for the writing of the single “Purple Rain”, reinventing it as a triumphant union of The Revolution, and The Kid’s apology for his mistakes. There’s goofy humour throughout the film, which balances out the darker elements warding off the danger of self-importance. The idiosyncrasies within the film, such as the amount of screen-time gifted to The Kid’s motorcycle give Purple Rain the sense of being specifically Prince’s film, rather than a cookie-cutter plot made for any musician who wanted to be a moviestar.

Purple Rain puppet

Whereas Purple Rain is in the business of creating a mythology for its star, Assassination unpicks what mythology does to the men involved. Assassination focuses on the final days of Jesse James, beginning with the James gang’s last big train robbery, a job which serves as James’ introduction to his eventual killer: James gang newbie and Jesse acolyte, Bob Ford. After the robbery the gang disbands, and seems to drift aimlessly, waiting to be tracked down by the law or one another. Jesse and Bob in particular seem acutely aware of a finality approaching, and each circles the other, luring the other into making their move. The eventual outcome – announced by the title – seems just as inevitable to them as it is to us. They both, as portrayed for the film, seem to be well aware of the fixed fact in history.

The look of this film is highly celebrated. Photographed by acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins, it is filled with memorable, beautiful, haunting shots. This aesthetic is often compared to a painting, and it’s a fitting style for a film about a man likely being memorialised in paintings while he lived. The film looks as though it is retelling a myth, and the lyrical cinematography is very much a part of that. Just imagining how different an Assassination shot in a more gritty, cinema vérité style would be, emphasises how expert cinematography can inform the story being told.

The casting of Brad Pitt as Jesse James and, to a lesser extent, Casey Affleck as Ford, brings another layer into the exploration of James’ celebrity. Brad Pitt is one of the most famous men in the world, and by the time of the film’s release in 2007, had been for over a decade. In the world of modern celebrity, he is just as closely-watched as James was, prior to his death. Oft-compared to Robert Redford in his early career, here Pitt’s performance better recalls Paul Newman. Their shared ability to hold the camera’s interest for extended periods while doing nothing more than looking serves Assassination well, with its many shots of Jesse James looking pensive and haunted. Affleck meanwhile, is lesser-known as an actor. His fame is overshadowed by that of his brother Ben, as Ford only gained recognition through his connection to Jesse James. Both actors give phenomenal performances, but there is a level of stunt-casting which deepens their connection to their roles here.

A late conversation between James and Ford visually expresses the difference between them both. The film cross-cuts between a close-up on Jesse’s face with a lit lamp over his shoulder, and a medium close-up on Bob, a fire burning in the fireplace behind him.

Jesse James lampJesse James fire

The scene is a display of contrasts between them both. Jesse sits on a sofa, while Bob sits on the floor, like a child. The camera is angled up when pointed at Jesse, positioning him in a position of dominance, whereas it is the opposite for Bob, and we look down upon him. Jesse speaks directly facing Bob, confronting him face-on, while Bob looks back over his shoulder to address Jesse, looking almost ashamed. These differences all portray Bob as uncomfortable, less honourable and less powerful than Jesse – “The Coward” of the title. Yet some of the other variances emphasise another difference between the two. The tighter close-up on Pitt means Jesse’s face is clearer to us, we can scrutinise every change in expression. Affleck is sitting a little further away, and is not facing the camera straight-on. Bob is therefore more difficult to read, avoiding the close scrutiny Jesse undergoes. This difference in position is echoed by the props behind them. The lamp and the fire both give light, inviting the comparison between them both but the fire, behind Bob, also gives warmth. It is live, it is able to move, and it is potentially dangerous. Contrast this with the lamp – a more modern invention, and one that gives a constant light but is confined to its place. If we read these objects as manifestations of Ford and James, they tell us that James is trapped, his legend is fixed and – as with the proximity of his face – it has undergone intense scrutiny, through which we believe we know everything there is to know about him. Ford is the fire. As of this moment in the film, he has yet to kill Jesse and is therefore free to remove himself from the Jesse James myth, and avoid being bottled up. Even once he does kill Jesse, the mythical power of the James legend overshadows him to the point where he is dismissed as a coward, and avoids the intense gaze to which Jesse is subject.

Purple Rain is a transparent – yet very effective – attempt at creating an origin for its star which its target audience can buy into, exploiting the human urge to mythologise public figures. Purple Rain only really holds value for Prince fans, but it’s hard to imagine someone watching it and not becoming a Prince fan. It is one of the exemplars of the musician-turned-movie-star genre because it is, as a recent article by Mike McGranaghan put it, “the Prince-iest Prince movie a fan could ever wish for, as well as a prime example of how to tailor a singer’s unique magic to the requirements of cinema”. Assassination takes the sort of mythmaking espoused by the likes of Purple Rain one step further, concerned with its potential to swallow the man inside whole. When Bob Ford aims the gun at Jesse’s back, the point of view shot puts the gun in the viewer’s hand.

Jesse James gun POV

Assassination looks at the cost of such relentless mythologizing, and the importance which we as a species attach to it.

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