The later of these two films follows its predecessor’s blueprint so closely that comparisons have been and always will be inevitable. Two powerful and controversial entertainers at the height of their fame make their acting debuts in lightly autobiographical musicals. Both Purple Rain and 8 Mile celebrate the exuberance and complexity in the music that Prince and Eminem, respectively, produced, and they also show that these musicians’ creativity is in part a response to dysfunction in their personal lives. Over the course of their nearly identical running times, the films chart the fictionalized gestation of one of their stars’ definitive songs. All told, these movies present a fascinating blend of vanity and self-criticism, while succeeding brilliantly in showcasing the music.
Prince’s and Eminem’s fictional doppelgangers, nicknamed “the Kid” and “Rabbit,” are at very different levels of success when their films begin. The Kid has a steady nightclub gig, performing his music for adoring fans. Rabbit is an unproven white boy trying to enter the local hip-hop scene, freezing up when he gets his first chance in a freestyle battle. 8 Mile is all about Rabbit’s ascension, while Purple Rain tells of the Kid’s struggles to reach the next rung without compromising his art. The Kid fashions himself as a solitary, brooding genius surrounded by mediocre sellouts, but Rabbit’s hope is to prove his authenticity, to show that he belongs.
Of course, the music they make is very different, and their diverging aesthetic properties play into the diverging styles of filmmaking, as well. The songs of Purple Rain are a vigorous mix of rock, R&B and funk — party music that can swing from raunchy sensuality to agonized yearning, sometimes in the same song. Accordingly, the film eagerly contrasts the ecstatic heights of the concert footage with the shocks of violence in the Kid’s abusive home (a dynamic inspired by Saturday Night Fever). It all exists in a heightened reality, governed by the Kid’s aesthetic iron fist: puffy shirts, pencil mustaches, beauty marks, and of course that outlandish purple motorcycle. Most of the music in 8 Mile, besides the established hits heard on car radios, is improvised and raw. It’s bare-bones expression that clarifies rivalries and settles scores. The film espouses a twenty-first century approach to unvarnished realism, with stray shots through bus windows of shuttered businesses and condemned buildings. Rabbit spends about as much time working in an automotive factory as he does either on stage or in one of the film’s parking lot rap duels.
That one of these films takes much greater stylistic risks (including rapid cutting, associative montage, and meandering hallway tracking shots) is all the more interesting considering the disparity in talent both behind and in front of the camera. The cast of Purple Rain is mostly composed of Prince’s real-life musical associates, and the director (Albert Magnoli) and editor (Ken Robinson) have done scarcely anything interesting besides this film. The director of 8 Mile (Curtis Hanson) was an established name in Hollywood who chose this project to follow up L.A. Confidential and Wonder Boys, and the cinematographer (Rodrigo Prieto) would go on to earn two Academy Award nominations. Even more telling, though, is that Eminem is surrounded by talented actors, including Mekhi Phifer, Anthony Mackie, Brittany Murphy, Michael Shannon, and Kim Basinger. The effect is unmistakable. In Purple Rain, Prince is always the most interesting onscreen presence, and there would be no film without him. 8 Mile is certainly also built around Eminem and his story, but it creates a more credible world around him, one that could easily sustain a film even in his absence.
Both of these films are perhaps most remarkable for the ways in which they encapsulate their stars’ views on women. The Kid spends the entirety of Purple Rain engaged in push-pull relationships with his bandmates, Wendy and Lisa, as well as Apollonia, the up-and-coming singer with whom he gets romantically involved. Jealousy and resentment clash with attraction and respect, with the Kid battling the flaws he inherited from his washed-up father. In the end, he makes peace with Apollonia going her own way and accepts Wendy and Lisa’s contributions, co-writing with them the title song. 8 Mile doesn’t offer that kind of catharsis. The gender-bending aspects of Prince’s persona are nowhere to be found in this chest-puffing masculine world. The whole movie tends to validate the viewpoint in so much of Eminem’s music that women are simply not to be trusted. Rabbit’s girlfriend Alex (Brittany Murphy) encourages him to follow his dream, but she’s just as devil-may-care as Apollonia about fraternizing (to put it delicately) with Rabbit’s rivals. She exists mostly on the sidelines of the story, but Rabbit’s mother (Kim Basinger) plays a more dominant role, and there’s really nothing to recommend the character. Sinking into poverty and alcoholism and seemingly determined to take her children down with her, she’s the garish face of the hardship Eminem had to overcome in his youth. The bitter grasp for sympathy is a defining flaw for the rapper.
These movies succeed mostly in the expected ways, with the musical climaxes being the clear highlights. Purple Rain taught me how to love the song “Purple Rain,” providing a backstory to that majestic hymn of regret and release. In 8 Mile, Rabbit’s final triumph over his nemeses produces a string of insights into the character. The breakthrough comes when he realizes that all the embarrassment in his life can be channeled into his art. He knows that, as a white man, he can be seen as an intruder, someone who will get more attention in the mainstream than black performers of equal talent simply because he’s a novelty. The best way around this fact is to turn it into self-deprecating humor. The first requirement is to tell the truth; if he can do that, he’ll prove he belongs. In the end, Rabbit’s triumph is much more subdued than the Kid’s. He still has a long way to go.
Dramatically, the films do leave something to be desired. The competing bands in Purple Rain have a lot of fun on stage, but they never do anything that could seriously challenge the Kid’s band, the Revolution. The individual subplots consist of memorable gestures (Lake “Minnetonka,” the anklet, the discovery of the father’s musical compositions) and little else. 8 Mile has some ham-fisted social consciousness and a basic dramatic flaw in the rap battles themselves; namely, that whoever gets the last word in would seem to have the advantage (unless, of course, he’s stunned speechless, which happens more than once). Inasmuch as the stories are vehicles to get the music onto the big screen, these problems don’t tank the movies altogether. The viewer’s preference for one film over the other will have a lot to do with his or her opinions about the leading men.