Prince on the cover of his album "Purple Rain."

Prince on the cover of his album “Purple Rain.”

by Hugh Gilmore

Once I did sometime worthy of being in the newspapers, so Terry Gross called me and invited me to be a guest on “Fresh Air.” What I’d done was chuck suburbia and go off to study wildlife in Africa. I lived in Wyndmoor then, was 30, chairman of Abington High School’s Humanities Department, married, had a son, a mortgage, two cars and a hibachi.

I quit it all because (as the Philadelphia Inquirer magazine story quoted me as saying), “Life ahead looked like a long road through Kansas and I needed a challenge before I settled down.” At the time, everybody said I had guts. I thought that was cool. But back to the show. Terry called me when I returned from my research in Kenya.

Terry Gross then was one of America’s yet-to-be-discovered treasures, one year into the job. WHYY-FM radio broadcast from 46th and Market streets back then. She had a reputation for having an uncanny ability to ask interesting questions. We talked for a half hour. I loved it. Among other things, she asked if my studies had affected my view of human nature. I’ve thought about that ever since.

I went on to be a professor of anthropology, specializing in the study of monkeys and apes. I taught at the University of Michigan, SUNY Albany, Rhode Island College, Penn State-Lima and a few other places. I never got a nailed-down job though. After years of futility I started trying to make a living other ways.

I wrote book reviews for newspapers around the country (Louisville Courier, Detroit Free Press, The Inky, Baltimore Sun, Albany Time Union, Cleveland Plain Dealer and others.) Those reviews didn’t pay much though. I applied for and became the theater editor of a Providence, R.I., arts weekly. I wrote theater, book and movie reviews and covered art openings. I became a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.

For personal reasons I moved back to Philadelphia, where I hoped to get a newspaper post as a cultural critic or entertainment reviewer. Before I got very far with that pursuit, however, I was offered a job for three times the money I’d ever made as a professor, critic, writer, whatever: teaching at Haverford High School, in Havertown, Pa. Back in suburbia, where I’d started. I took the job, hoping to pay my bills and then get back to looking for newspaper work.

I taught at Haverford during the day and several days a week went down to WHYY-FM and volunteered as a writer for the evening radio news show. The station had moved to its big shiny headquarters near 6th and Market streets by then, and Terry Gross had become a respected star of public radio.

I would sometimes stop by her office and say hello. She remembered me from our idealist-running-from-Suburbia interview. She was always warm and kind and radiated smartness. You could study all your life and never master her gifts. One day I heard she was looking to add a film critic to her show.

In addition to my background as a reviewer, I had taught film and film-making years before. I knew a lot about film history and theory. Wrapping it all up, I thought I had apt credentials for the job. I asked Terry about it. She welcomed me to try. She said I should record an audition tape, giving a sample review. Don’t worry about trying to sound like a radio announcer. Just be natural. And interesting. You know, just be your average National Public Radio guy telling listeners about the new movie in town. I accepted the charge.

Here’s the timely twist you’ve been waiting for: The movie I reviewed was Prince’s “Purple Rain.” I don’t know if Terry assigned me that film, or I decided to be daring. I saw it three times that week.

I thought it was really stupid. But one is not free to say that, because the world contains a rainbow of opinions and: Who are you to insult other people’s taste? So I tried for the educated-guy-shows-he’s-a-fun-guy approach. I wrote a compromised review and taped it many times and submitted it. I didn’t get the job.

When I rethink the experience, I imagine I was probably too recently removed from being an academic to be a pop-culture critic. I was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time.

That’s what I told my wife last Saturday night when we were out to dinner. The memory came up apropos of Prince having died last week. She said she’d never seen “Purple Rain.” We should rent the video when we got home and see what I thought now. Then maybe I should write a column about my reactions. Agreed. Good idea, as usual, Janet. We went home to our sort-of-suburban home, where we have a son, own two cars and a hibachi grill and enjoy a flat-screen TV. Back where I started, only not so restless – happy, in fact. Better off for having left and returned.

The envelope, please. The movie is two hours long. At the tediously-arrived-at, one-hour mark, we began fast forwarding. “Purple Rain” is still a dumb movie. And dated. And inauthentic, and self-pitying, and obtuse. And for all its writhing imitations of bodies in heat, it’s nowadays as chaste as Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. It’s a series of MTV music videos with conflated bits of dialogue serving as filler between them. And for all the hipness of its settings, the movie works so hard for “crossover appeal” that any real feel for black culture has been sanitized right down to its white bones.

There, Terry, can I have the job now? I didn’t dislike it back in 1985 because I’m a snob. It really is a terrible, corny film.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of the Kindle Top-100 memoir, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story” and several fictional works set in the world of old and rare book selling.

  • Hawthorn Man

    Great column, Hugh. I enjoyed learning more about your background. I am pretty sure that I never saw Purple Rain – probably only snippets. Now I know that I did not miss much.

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