Prince's "Purple Rain" can be seen as a cinematic valentine to Minneapolis from our most prominent rock music figure or as a contemporary backstage musical. Either way, it succeeds nicely on its own terms. "Purple Rain" was filmed last November and December in 32 locations in and around Minneapolis. Just like when we watched the made-in-Minneapolis "The Personals" a couple of years ago, we might find ourselves trying to pinpoint where a particular scene in this film was shot or trying to pick out a familiar face in a crowd.

You can't miss First Avenue, the downtown club where most of the concert scenes took place. Just about every time the action shifts to the club, the camera shows the front door and marquee. The club is so prominent that it undoubtedly will end up on the itinerary of every Prince fanatic in much the same way that Beatles fans flocked to Liverpool's Cavern Club, where the Fab Four cut their teeth.

The odd thing, though, is that this film never mentions Minneapolis. Not once. It's not in the dialogue, on any road signs or even in some offhanded remark or inconsequential backdrop. The only giveaway that the film takes place here is a reference to Lake Minnetonka, glimpses of "Land of 10,000 Lakes" license plates and the closing credits, which thank the mayor, police and people of the city.

Yet Minneapolis is so much a part of this movie. The attitudes and tenor of the local music scene have shaped the look and essence of this picture. It's not that "Purple Rain" is so much the story of Prince and his royal court of musical funkateers, because it's not. But it focuses on a healthy, competitive music scene and the relationships among the bands, club owners and the individuals within a band. That's why, in essence, "Purple Rain" is a contemporary entry in the backstage musical genre.

It is not, however, the greatest rock film ever, as one critic has contended. In many ways, "Purple Rain" exudes the classic qualities of the best rock 'n' roll music: aggressiveness, irreverence and sexiness. It could have been a great movie; the story is strong and credible, the musical sequences are magnificent and joltingly powerful, and the cinematography is appropriately moody and generally first-rate. However, the acting is erratic, the violence and sexism are excessive, tasteless and gratuitous, and it takes too long for the viewers to become emotionally involved with the many players and plots in this 104-minute drama.

In some respects, rookie director Al Magnoli, who also co-wrote the screenplay and edited the film, has adopted a style not unlike "Flashdance" and "Footloose," two recent music-oriented flicks that were big winners with teens and young adults. Like a rock video, this movie cuts quickly from scene to scene, with the camera never staying anywhere too long except on the concert sequences. Magnoli's style gives the film an intoxicating yet discomforting edge, much like Prince's music of the early '80s.

Even though the music performances may be the most memorable scenes in the film, Magnoli skillfully weaves them into the flow of the story and does not allow them to dominate or distract. The songs, most of which Prince wrote before he saw Magnoli's script, smartly complement the storyline from the perspective of his character, the Kid.

He comes from a troubled home where the father, a once-gifted but now closet musician, abuses the mother. The only way the Kid can escape this cruel world is through his music. But the music thing isn't going so well, either. His band seems to have lost its drawing power at First Avenue, losing out to the Time, Modernaires (Dez Dickerson's band) and possibly Apollonia 6, a new band put together by Morris Day of the Time. Both Day and the Kid have their eye on Apollonia, the new girl in town. As the story unfolds, the Kid's relationships with Apollonia and with his music parallel the struggles in his father's life.

Magnoli gives the protagonist uncommon depth for a rock-oriented picture, yet we don't care enough for this Jekyll/Hyde young man who is a cocky, stubborn exhibitionist onstage and a passive, vulnerable soul offstage. Thus, ultimately "Purple Rain" is more jarring than compelling.

Prince shows a commanding screen presence, but it's not clear if he can act, because his part is too close to his persona in real life. Anyone who has seen him in concert will not notice any new expressions or nuances on the screen. It will take a different role to truly measure his cinematic potential.

Patricia Kotero (Apollonia), in her film debut, is a stunning statue who is as gorgeous as a Greek goddess and as stiff as the Venus de Milo in the Louvre museum. She never seems to rise above the trite dialogue she's given.

Witness her awkward first encounter with the Kid.

"First Avenue is really famous," says the fresh-faced newcomer from New Orleans. "A lot of bands make it after playing there. It's real exciting."

"Is that what turns you on?" the Kid asks.

"What do you mean?"

"Making it."

"It would be nice for a change. It's all I dream about. And you?"

At least, Day and his sidekick, Jerome Benton, are given some material to work with. Their "Who's on First?"-like routine may be hackneyed, but they pull it off with shuck-and-jive preciousness. Day, the zoot-suited dandy, comes on like a bug-eyed Richard Pryor cartoon, bringing much-needed levity to this interior drama nearly every time he appears on screen.

However, Benton may be the discovery in "Purple Rain." Of all of Prince's musical subjects trying their luck at acting, he seems the most naturally suited for film. Even though his role is a small one, Benton seizes the chance to show an array of emotions. Day is similarly convincing, but his clownish character lacks dimension and range.

Wendy Melvoin, guitarist in Prince's Revolution, is effective as the feisty band member to whom the leader never pays attention. Billy Sparks, a Michigan concert promoter, is perfectly typecast as the no-nonsense manager of First Avenue. Clarence Williams III and Olga Karlatos, the only established actors in the cast, contribute strong portrayals as the Kid's parents.

The dramatic shortcomings of "Purple Rain" are offset by the strength of the concert sequences. The power of Prince's performances is captured wonderfully on the big screen by Donald Thorin, who also shot "An Officer and a Gentleman." If nothing else, this movie should substantially boost sales of the "Purple Rain" soundtrack and increase Prince's allure as a concert attraction manifold. But I think this film has staying power, too. With the summer blockbusters past us, "Purple Rain" stands a good chance of enduring through the rest of the summer and possibly the fall. With the music all over the radio and video clips all over television, this film could have the kind of legs that "Footloose" showed last winter and spring.

The bottom line, though, is what "Purple Rain" says to Hollywood. It is a somewhat maverick film put together by first-time producers on a relatively small budget ($7 million) with a first-time director and a cast of (black and white) musicians who probably never would have been given a chance (together) in Hollywood.

It says that an artist with a vision and a dream can stay at home and still make it — and make it big — in the entertainment world. That hasn't been done since that former truck driver with the swiveling pelvis helped convert Memphis into a pop mecca. It's unlikely our little Prince will do the same for Minneapolis, but "Purple Rain" goes a long way to make people believe that he is unquestionably the most exciting and essential figure to emerge in pop culture in the 1980s.