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Prince takes center stagein ‘Purple Rain’

DVDs: Also reviewed, Fellini's ‘I Vitelloni’ and documentary ‘Worlds at War’

“Purple Rain”
20th Anniversary Two-Disc Special Edition
Most rock and roll movies are more about the rock and roll than they are about the story. Usually, they provide an excuse to take an idea that ordinarily would satisfy a five-minute music video and puff it up to an hour and a half of pop-culture fluff.

“Purple Rain” is one of the rare exceptions. This 1984 sleeper is a Prince vanity project, to be sure, but one that stands out because the music doesn’t smother the narrative. The two are deftly intertwined, thanks to the efforts of director Albert Magnoli, producer Robert Cavallo and the Purple One himself.

The story takes place in Minneapolis, Prince’s hometown, and most of the action centers on First Avenue, a popular club where edgy music acts battle for attention. Prince plays The Kid, a motorcycle-riding leader of the Revolution. He not only competes with Morris Day and the Time for on-stage supremacy, but also for the affections of the lovely Appollonia (Appollonia Kotero).

Setting it apart from most pop melodramas is a compelling subplot involving The Kid’s troubled and abusive father, played to perfection by Clarence Williams III of “Mod Squad” fame. Weaved together with musical numbers that include ’80s chart-toppers like “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy,” and the relationships with band members (including the lively duo of Wendy and Lisa), the interchanges between Morris and sidekick Jerome and a crabby club manager, the result is a highly enjoyable concoction.

To celebrate the film’s 20th anniversary, it is being released on DVD in a two-disc special edition. The first contains the feature, with a sharp digital transfer in widescreen, and Dolby Digital 5.1 sound that does justice to the Oscar-winning score. There are also commentaries by Magnoli, Cavallo and cinematographer Donald E. Thorin.

The second disc has lots of bonus stuff, including eight Prince videos and footage of the MTV Premiere Party, which is a hoot considering the hair and fashions of the day.

In addition to “Purple Rain,” Warner Home Video is releasing two other lesser works starring Prince, “Under the Cherry Moon” and “Graffiti Bridge,” which aren’t quite as significant but are worth checking out if you’re a Prince fanatic. Then again, if you’re a Prince fanatic, you probably have seen each about a hundred times.

Check out this special feature: They do a nice job with featurettes on this one. Lots of interviews with members of the Time, Prince’s former manager, members of Prince’s band, observers of the Minneapolis club scene, etc. It’s split into three separate pieces, and like most of these, could probably have been edited into one succinct version. But for Prince fans, it’s a feast.

(Warner Home Video, $26.99)

“I Vitelloni”

Hanging out with your pals, making small talk, downing a few drinks, checking out members of the opposite sex, looking for work but not really looking, dreaming about better things, worrying about the future. This is acceptable behavior, as long as you don’t make it your life’s work. At some time or another, we’ve all been there, even if only briefly.

In “I Vitelloni,” Federico Fellini takes the plight of lazy, directionless young men and raises it to an art form. “Vitellone” literally means “big calves” in Italian, but Fellini uses it like Americans would use “slacker” — guys who stay home and feed off their parents. In the sleepy seaside village where the story takes place (based on Rimini, Fellini’s hometown), there are plenty of them.

“I Vitelloni,” a semi-autobiographical tale that received an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay, was released in 1953. It was Fellini’s second solo directorial effort. His first, “The White Sheik,” was not welcomed warmly by critics or audiences.

But “I Vitelloni” put him on the map as a director after he had built a solid reputation as a screenwriter. It is not as stylistically bold as “La Strada” or “Nights of Cabiria” were soon after, and not nearly as “Fellini-esque” as “La Dolce Vita” or “Amarcord.” But it’s Fellini’s wicked sense of humor layered into sensitive portrayals of young men facing the terrifying prospects of responsibility and adulthood. Martin Scorsese, who lists Fellini as one of his favorite directors, was said to have been influenced by “I Vitelloni” when he made his groundbreaking “Mean Streets.”

The Criterion Collection DVD is another successful treatment of a masterwork.  Picture and sound have been restored beautifully through a high-definition digital transfer. The extras aren’t extensive, but there is one excellent short documentary called “Vitellonismo” that includes interviews  with two actors who appeared in the film, Leopoldo Trieste and Franco Interlenghi, as well as assistant director Moraldo Rossi.

This is somewhat of a lost classic, and now that it’s on DVD, Fellini fans should break open a bottle of Sangiovese and rejoice.

(Criterion Collection, $29.95)

“The World at War”

When “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Thin Red Line” came out in 1998 and went on to vie for Academy Award honors, they generated a wave of interest in anything having to do with World War II. The frenzy was further aided by a cornucopia of non-fiction books chronicling the period, especially the Stephen Ambrose series that includes “D-Day” and “Band of Brothers,” the latter having gone on to become a much-lauded HBO miniseries.

But well before this recent rekindling of interest in one of the globe’s most frightening and fascinating eras, a documentary series was produced that stands as arguably the definitive history of World War II. “The World At War” is a stunning compilation of footage and interviews that covers just about every important aspect of the colossal struggle between the Allies and the Axis powers, and the almost unfathomable horrors that took place before great heroism prevailed.

The series, narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier, is out in a 30th anniversary DVD set of 11 disks that includes over 22 hours of documentary footage and another 12 hours of extras. The series doesn’t go in exact chronological order, but rather is organized into segments that focus on particular phases of the war.  There are pieces entitled “A New Germany: 1933-1939” that follows the rise of the Nazi Party;  “Banzai!: Japan 1931-1942” about the state of Japan and its involvement;  “Wolf Pack: U-Boats in the Atlantic 1939-1944,” about the Germans’ undersea attacks; “Red Star: The Soviet Union 1941-1943,” about Russia’s comeback victory in Leningrad against the Nazis, and many more.

Most of the black-and-white footage shot for this is so extraordinary that you’ll probably ask yourself, “How did they ever find this?” more than once. It was all compiled from newsreels, amateur home movies and propaganda films. The interviews are equally astonishing. They’re not simply those of observers, but some of the key decision-makers and participants of the war. And although it was produced by a British group, it is an unbiased and unvarnished account from a global point of view.

This is one of those sets that is equally effective as an education tool and as not-to-be-missed entertainment for history buffs.

Check out this special feature: There is so much to consider, but especially effective is “The Final Solution: Parts 1 and 2,” about the Nazis’ persecution and murder of the Jews. It tells the story in a slow, deliberate, step-by-step way that makes the ultimate reality that much harder to believe.

(A&E Home Video, $149.95)