Three Princes - An Appraisal of a Funky Film Career

When Prince passed away in 2016 it was a sad end to what had been an interesting life. The details of what killed him aren’t clear, but for the man who created the purring come-on of ‘Gett Off’ to be discovered collapsed in a lift is ignominious to say the least.

It took me a long time to get around to Prince. I’m not particularly enthusiastic about funk, and his cavortings always seemed faintly ridiculous for a man of his physical stature. But even though his imperial period had long since passed by the time I recognised he was a genius, it was still a huge ambition of mine to see him live. There was opportunity, should I have been arsed enough, to see him during his O2 residency in 2007, but I guess I thought he’d go on forever, like an icon does. But then David Bowie died, England lost to Iceland and Brexit happened. 2016 was a shitshow, and it took Prince Rogers Nelson away on a purple ebb tide.

For the last year I’ve overdosed on music. I’ve been doing a lot of editing, which is intricate and tedious and takes concentration, and I concentrate best when I have something on in the background. Luckily, Prince had me covered, and I’ve repeatedly gone back to his discography to give me a little bit of rhythm. There are other artists I adore, whereas I only really love him, but I do believe that if we’re still around in two hundred years we’ll be talking of him as we talk now of Mozart. Even if you don’t like him, you have to acknowledge his talent.

Like most huge artists of the 1980s, Prince was expected to move into film in addition to being really fucking great at what he was put on this earth to do, much like Madonna and Michael Jackson. Musicians and movies rarely go hand in hand, because although they are both entertainment, the skills are not especially transferable. Music is about feel and something which perhaps is indefinable, where I always judge acting on connection, that recognition of something which we share but can’t always say. An emotive frontperson doesn’t necessarily have the nuance that a terrific actor can provide.

I’d always known Purple Rain had been a film as well as a humongously successful album. I wasn’t especially keen to see it for the reasons outlined above, and the other two films Prince starred in, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge (also taking on the role of director), were supposed to be unmitigated turkeys hamstrung by egotistical incompetence. So, after finishing a project and attempting to decompress, I thought I’d take on the task of seeing if Prince’s cinematic oeuvre was merely misunderstood like Help!, or if it was Shanghai Surprise shit.

First up, 1984’s Purple Rain. There was at least a noble idea behind the creation of Prince’s debut feature, because Prince himself dictated that it be a proper feature and not just an extended live video. Musically, Prince had total creative freedom from Warner Brothers as a condition of his signature, but this was a different field. The demand that the film have a script, a proper director and a coterie of actors, as well as marketing beyond the notion that Prince was in a film, was unprecedented for an artist like him, even after the 1999 album and attendant videos had made His Royal Badness an MTV staple. Nevertheless, Warner Bros. put their backing behind him (to a limited extent), flung $7 million at writer/director Albert Magnoli and sent Prince and the Revolution back to their leading man’s stomping ground of Minneapolis.

The plot, such as it is, sees Prince play The Kid, frontman and musical dictator of The Revolution. They are a bar band, and unsuccessful to boot, left in the twitching slipstream of Morris Day and The Time, a clutch of zoot-suited cartoons and the headliners at the First Avenue nightclub. The Kid’s offstage life is unhappy, living with his abusive father and his miserable mother, and it is only through music that he is in control. However, the audience at First, previously hip to his beat, have grown weary of his wankery and The Revolution’s spot on the bill is in serious jeopardy.

Into the middle of all this politics walks Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), a possibly-rich girl who has come to the Twin Cities to find her big break. Instead she finds The Kid, and they begin a passionate thing, involving purple motorcycles, flurries of leather and lace and band initiations in Lake Minnetonka. Sensing a weakness, the dastardly Day drives a wedge between the two by creating a group for her, Apollonia 6. The Kid gets slap-happy as his life starts to crumble, until he recognises himself in his father’s actions, puts lyrics to a song the women in his band have written but he has ignored, and cements his place at First Avenue with a triumphant rendering of the title track, ‘I Would Die 4 U’ and ‘Baby, I’m A Star’.

"For the last bloody time, I haven't come as Violet Beauregarde", he said, halting the concert again.

Purple Rain
was a huge box-office success, and indeed it put Prince over the top in terms of mainstream recognition. It occurs to me that if you couldn’t see how phenomenal Prince was with 1999 then Purple Rain probably wasn’t going to change your mind, but then I still like Dodgy, so I’m possibly the wrong person to arbitrate on taste.

But what of the film? Well, it’s okay, but it hinges on two conceits: firstly, that the entire world considers songs like ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and ‘Darling Nikki’ tedious and passé; and secondly that being the best unsigned act in a club that’s only got three acts on rotation is somehow of paramount importance. There is some nonsense about it being a breeding ground for the next big thing, but given that the size of the dressing rooms and the lightshow behind The Revolution every week look like they’re headlining Wembley Arena, you do wonder who the previous resident of First was.

Leaving aside the absolute joy in the music itself, Purple Rain is all about Prince: how he looks, how he moves, how he acts. Now, there are plenty of terrible actors out there, and plenty more terrible acting performances by musicians, but this is not one of them. Prince can act. He’s not being asked to understudy The Dane, true, but he inhabits The Kid perfectly: he pouts, he winks, he stands proud, he looks vaguely confused. There is a key scene where The Kid’s father tries to shoot himself and Prince is asked to have a great big breakdown (pull hair, smash up a load of jars in a cellar, that kind of thing), and it’s convincing. No, he’s not a terrible actor at all, which could have torpedoed the film if he was.

But then the camera bloody loves him, doesn’t it? Those big brown eyes, that dynamite mid-eighties sexy Prince…you would, wouldn’t you? I see what everyone was getting at for all those years. Director Magnoli takes any excuse to get him half-naked and oiled, strutting on that stage with the iconic Cloud guitar, capturing Prince and the Revolution in their absolute pomp. The band, particularly Wendy and Lisa, have small side roles in The Kid’s story but the camera finds Prince wherever it points. Perhaps that’s why he gives a good rendering, because in real life Prince loved playing the role of himself so much.

Apollonia Kotero won a Razzie for Worst New Star for Purple Rain, which is unfair for an acting role which wouldn’t make anybody’s chops ache. She is stunningly gorgeous, if a little like Jane Leeves circa The Benny Hill Show, but all she has to do is strip off and wait for Prince to either bash her or bang her. There is a hateful misogynistic streak running through Purple Rain – The Kid may recognise his genetic flaws, but Apollonia still doesn’t get an apology. He does write ‘I Would Die 4 U’ in tribute, so it depends on whether being sung at is enough to make you forgive a guy.

Yes, it’s an extended promo piece, and the plot is so thin you could put your finger through it and find it covered in purple, but it’s an artist at his absolute zenith, looking luminous and sounding fantastic, and utterly essential viewing if you have any kind of music in your soul.

But despite the less-than-challenging plotline of Purple Rain, the movie did such good business that a sequel was inevitable. In front of Warner lay a paradox: Prince was creatively untouchable yet some of his directions were hugely controversial. Between Purple Rain and its follow-up Prince released Around the World In A Day, a psychedelic jaunt from far left-field, and prepared work on another pair of albums. This was in addition to putting out Parade, the soundtrack album to the film Under the Cherry Moon. Nothing pointed towards a straightforward sequel, but he was so bankable they greenlit a second film minus a script anyway.

Prince and his manager Steven Fargnoli had taken themselves off to the south of France to scout for possible filming locations. After seeing Nice, Prince fell in love and decided Cherry Moon would be set and filmed there. Commissioning a screenplay from newbie Rebecca Johnston and hiring video promo veteran Mary Lambert, production decamped to the French Riviera along with $12 million of Warners money.

Prince’s ambition saw him yearn to stretch his acting chops and leave the shallow world of Minnesota-dive-bar supremacy behind, so Cherry Moon is a proper film with proper actors and a standalone plot, such as it is. Prince plays Christopher Tracy, a gigolo-cum-pianist using his wiles to screw rich women out of their spare cash to try and make enough money to get back to Miami. In this he’s assisted by his mate/cousin/brother/pimp Tricky (Jerome Benton). Their shark instincts sharpened by news of a young ingenue’s $50 million birthday inheritance, Christopher and Tricky resolve to take her for everything, only to both fall for her in the process.

One more practice date with the houseplant and he'd be ready to try one with a real girl.

So far, so waffer-thin. But Under the Cherry Moon is not a film where plot is important. It’s much more of a mood-piece than just an excuse to link performances of songs. Usually “mood-piece” is code for boring as shit, but Cherry Moon leavens it with thick dollops of screwball comedy, leaving its enigmatic silences in coated the dust of Prince’s open-top Buick.

Critics savaged the film, decrying it as a vanity project full of lame set-pieces, terrible acting and vapid direction. A lot of this has to do with, I think, the decision early-on in filming for Prince to step into director Lambert’s shoes, apparently amicably. From that moment on Cherry Moon became Prince’s lone vision, with not a little help from cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who was reportedly uncredited director for many scenes. The lack of musical set-pieces, Prince instead deciding to use his soundtrack as cues rather than an excuse to crack out another signature classic, has been used as an example of his hubris. He’s a musician, ergo he should stick to warbling and not emoting.

But Under the Cherry Moon is an entertaining movie nonetheless. It is a vanity project, but then Prince was an incredibly vain man. The look is oh-so vital, and Cherry Moon’s gorgeous black and white universe is a key factor in keeping this film interesting. I’ve seen stills from the colour version and somehow it looks less interesting. I think this is Prince’s version of A Bout de Souffle, him playing the part of the sleazy, silly Tracy and newcomer Kristin Scott Thomas his uptight muse Mary Sharon. To criticise a man whose musical palette was infused with a million colours for trying to combine 30s studio glamour with 40s snappy dialogue, Nouvelle Vague and 80s pop video style seems unfair, even if it does turn out that it’s more of a tart pudding than a trifle.

Again, because Prince is the dominating presence as Christopher, it’s ample time to assess if his acting is up to scratch and yes, he can still perform - in fact, against some formidable opposition. Scott Thomas has since disowned the film but aside from her eye-popping introduction, entering her birthday party in the eponymous suit and commandeering a drum-kit to funk it up, it’s easy to see that this a debut performance. She’s all big eyes and stiff smiles and, as has been noted, there’s nothing going on between her and her leading man.

As for Prince, he leers, struts and mugs like a tiny colt, making the most of his vast wardrobe of silks, velvet and DJs. Even though Christopher Tracy is a shit, you can’t help but like him. Not enough to want him to succeed, perhaps, but he’s entertaining and enviable in small doses. The partnership he has with Tricky is sweet in its own way, and it’s clear that that’s where he’s having the most fun. The famous "Wrecka Stow" scene is often held up as proof of their interplay, but equally as important are their scenes in their grotty (but still beautiful) apartment, where the relationship is played out.

Under the Cherry Moon is not without its issues, and drops off badly in the second half attempting to bring the plot under control. Because Scott Thomas cannot bring herself to look as if she gives a cack whether Prince loves her or not, the revelation he’s been playing her falls flat and his own reaction, rubbing his face in horror, is his worst moment. Maybe it’s because he kisses like a horse trying to lick toffee off an apple through a dozen letterboxes, but if we haven’t found out after thirty years, we’ll probably never know.

Because this undercuts the danger element of the plot, it’s difficult to care if Christopher makes it off the Cote d’Azur with Mary, her shipping magnate father’s guns on his tail. Like many of Prince’s records, only a handful of which are total perfection from start to finish, Under the Cherry Moon is more successful scenes than a complete triumph. Christopher’s [spoiler alert, even though it’s been out three decades] death, set against the divine ‘Sometimes It Snows in April’, is genuinely affecting. We nearly didn’t get that ending, had someone not persuaded the director otherwise, and it’s to be glad they did.

But I would watch Cherry Moon again, and not just because of my affection for the little master. It’s a nothing film which only cares about its star, but that star is luminescent. It also looks magnificent – clean and clear with some stunning lighting. Like Purple Rain, if you hate Prince you’ll hate this, but then why would you bother if you did? Treat it for what it is: a fruity, creamy pastry on a sun-soaked esplanade, surrounded by beautiful bastards, and you may enjoy it without guilt or shame.

Under the Cherry Moon, by Prince’s recent standards, was a titanic flop, and its main legacy aside from the ubiquity of ‘Kiss’ was that Prince dissolved The Revolution and started to work up material that would bear his name alone. During this period, a wounded Prince readied The Black Album, but on the eve of its release had a change of heart and pulled it. This was less a crisis of confidence and seemingly a quasi-religious conversion. Having several faith-based conversations with the Family Stone’s bass player Larry Graham, Prince joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. His lyrical themes, while not being discarded completely, would begin to be strongly leavened by his opinions on marriage, fidelity and the Man himself. 

The next album to emerge was Sign O’ The Times, dominated by the spare and anxiety-riven title track, and one of those “best double albums ever” candidates. Prince toured Sign, releasing a concert film, but in hindsight the period after the full-stop of the insane but magnificent Lovesexy saw him pinballing between projects, from the mould-breaking Batman to the building of the Paisley Park complex. Ironically for this time, Prince tied himself to the movie business in every way apart from starring in another one, and record buyers seemed to sense his lack of direction with falling sales.

Although it is no shame to descend from such heights as the period 1982-’88, for a man with such belief in his own ideas it was no surprise that Prince should try and erase the failure of Under the Cherry Moon by revisiting his peak, and hence we end the unofficial trilogy of narrative Prince films with Graffiti Bridge. A direct sequel to Purple Rain (it wasn’t always: it was planned as a vehicle for The Time), Prince sat once again in the director’s chair, while pulling another talent from his bag of tricks with his debut script.

The action moves from gritty Minneapolis to a fantasy version of one of its neighbourhoods, Seven Corners. Made up, confusingly, of four of them, each houses a nightclub or concert venue, one of which is part-owned by Prince’s character The Kid. Now grown-up (witness the beard and long-hair), he’s struggling with owning Glam Slam, performing regularly but troubled both by the death of his father and the machinations of Morris Day, his co-owner and head honcho of Glam Slam’s direct rival, Pandemonium.

Needing to come up with ten grand for no reason in particular, Day and his henchman Jerome lead a motley crew of Prince’s old Twin Cities compadres (such as real-life superproducers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis) in a paramilitary operation on Glam Slam to encourage The Kid to cede control, trying to set it on fire and such. The Kid looks on unimpressed, trapped in a netherworld of dwindling audiences and frustrated solitude.

'Thundercats: The Musical' would prove to be a rare misstep in an otherwise stellar career.

In the audience one night is Aura (Ingrid Chavez), a dreamlike poet and possible angel, who The Kid immediately falls for, in that “you’re quite interesting, but you must subsume your whole life to me now” kind of a way. Aura is above all the pushing and shoving between The Kid and The Time, hanging out next to the titular bridge and scribbling lines. Morris Day starts to take an interest, but the character’s attempts at seduction (wandering hands, date-rape, that kind of thing) contrast sharply with The Kid’s hands-off moodiness.

The Kid challenges Day to a music-off for ownership of Glam Slam. His initial attempt mocked, Day shows him how it’s done on the back of a truck in Seven Corners. In the aftermath of the humiliation, the dopey Aura is hit by a stolen car and killed. The inspires The Kid to offer up his soul in song, performing his angst in a gospel-style in front of a shamefaced Day and the rest of The Time. So moved is he that he gives up his share to The Kid, and they all go home. Then The Kid throws purple paint on some graffiti and the credits roll.

If that all sounds a) bizarre, and b) a load of shit, then you’re absolutely right. Graffiti Bridge has few redeeming features, and the critical mauling it received then and continues to suffer is entirely justified. As an indicator of Prince’s way around a word processor, you appreciate that it’s the one instrument that he can’t get a tune out of. As a writer who doesn’t specialise in poetry or lyrics, I can attest how difficult it is to expand or contract the skill - just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

The one kindness you can offer Graffiti Bridge is that as a series of late eighties music videos it looks good, overloaded with neon and harsh shadow. Having little to no narrative to link these performances together doesn’t help, but the most well-known song from the film soundtrack, ‘Thieves in the Temple’, sizzles and cracks in a way that shames the acting. This is the ultimate vanity project (excusing that time Prince insisted one of his protoges was named Vanity) and moments to rewind are all too rare.

I found the easiest way to get through it was to reimagine it literally: when everyone’s gone home, Prince in the bogs replacing those little yellow cubes of disinfectant, or whether or not to start offering the punters food (they won’t serve ribs, natch), then he goes off and does the big shop and inputs it all on a spreadsheet on his Macintosh SE before having a fretful night’s kip.

The fact is that Purple Rain did not need a sequel, or to be more accurate, a remake. Barring a few technicalities, Graffiti Bridge is the same film, but look - Prince is all adult! He doesn’t have to shave or anything! Look at the facts: plays at a club with a disinterested audience, rivals with The Time, mysterious woman enters the club to save his soul, has to win a music contest for some reason, is able to put his relationship with his father behind him because maturity and some sex with girls.

It’s rather easy to appreciate why Prince would return to his crowning glory at this point, largely for two reasons. Firstly, with critics starting to question if he’d lost it, it’s natural to try and shove that question where the sun doesn’t shine (and in Seven Corners, you never see the sun, unlike in ‘Let’s Go Crazy’). Secondly, and most importantly, Prince as an artist was constantly tinkering with his material, improving, improvising and rethinking. Many of his greatest moments were retoolings of songs or tunes he’d written or collaborated on years before.

But maybe Graffiti Bridge was such a misstep because Prince was unsure of himself for once. With successive projects being questioned, he could have sought comfort in familiarity but ended with a below average project because he was afraid of doing something totally new. Under the Cherry Moon, for its faults, with at least a grand ambition which at the time Prince revelled in, but by the time of Graffiti Bridge the pressure to regain old territory against younger pups like West Coast rap and house music pioneers must have been immense. Even the soundtrack album is cookie-cutter; a very safe MTV version of the Minneapolis Sound with few high points (although Tevin Campbell's 'Round and Round' is a bona-fide banger).

While there could probably be an article on its own to examine Graffiti Bridge under the spotlight of Prince’s religious conversion, it’s enough here to note the accents: Glam Slam being full of crosses; The Kid flouncing around in flowing white blouses and long, silky dark hair; the love interest being a literal Aura, who arrives from nowhere and has to die at the hands of a confused follower of the villain. The title track tells us everyone’s looking for Graffiti Bridge, but what is that: grace? Heaven? It’s impossible that nobody noticed these motifs while the film was in production, but what’s the message here - don’t run a nightclub next to Satan? Whatever; Jesus is good, and if someone lives under a bridge, sleep with them. Rules for life right there.

After this Prince would shun acting and that’s no terrible thing, but what is faintly terrible is the realisation that the purple patch was over. Graffiti Bridge didn’t kill it, and there would be returns and very high points, but these would be inconsistent. His residencies would cement him in the hearts of younger music fans and his back catalogue would always, always place him in the pantheon of all time greats, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Prince was restless for the rest of his life: challenges with Warner Bros., divorce, watering down of product. Eventually he became an icon and not an iconoclast, implying a blunting of his once razor-sharp edge.

Prince’s movies have one undoubted triumph - it’s Purple Rain, of course, but I think there’s definitely a place for Under the Cherry Moon. It’s easy to assume Prince took his work and image far too seriously (famously, he’d refuse Weird Al Yankovic a parody) but at the end of the day, he traded on sex, fun, fantasy, lasciviousness and dream-like imagery. That’s what makes Graffiti Bridge the failure that it is: it’s no fun, and what levity there is seems forced. Cherry Moon, by contrast, is an overreach but at least it knows it, and arguably shows a man far more in his pomp that Purple Rain does. Take a look at the footage of Prince on The Muppets - he’s loving it, taking the piss out of his image and it’s a joyous way to remember him.

So after three films, have I changed my mind about Prince and his talents? No. He’s still a fucking genius. But perhaps heroes should have feet of clay. They should have the odd mistake here and there. Besides, I get the chance to see what the hell everyone must have been shouting about when he was genuinely monumental, and it was absolutely in the way he knew would show him best. That’s when he was great, after all - when he was nothing other than Prince.

Comments

  1. Awesome write up on some very boring films. You forgot to mention his soundtrack effort for the 1989 Batman. Even though he aint in it, you feel that he is?

    Good work though and you educated me.

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  2. The Batman situation is quite odd really. The blaze of publicity surrounding a star like Prince offering to do a soundtrack album should have meant he took over the score and be hugely prominent in the story. But only 'Partyman' gets a key scene, almost as an aside, with a couple of other brief snatches of the collection elsewhere. Burton and Prince do not make easy bedfellows but I watched that film the other night and it's a dog's dinner all round - the first truly 360 summer blockbuster which set the template for all-around licensing but not satisfactory in any real way.

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