Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Diminishing returns: the cinema of Prince

Prince was a sublime musician and an absolutely awful filmmaker. People of the right age group look back very fondly on Purple Rain, which contains a terrific song score by the Purple One and engages in fun, if insane, pop-rock-funk mythology.

He followed that box-office blockbuster with three films a concert movie (wish he'd done more of those) and two unbelievably bad fiction films. They have sequences that are “so bad they're good” but also are reflective of a talented musician's ego run amok. Since Prince was so integrally involved in the creation of these pictures, I thought it would be valuable to discuss these grandiose missteps in detail.

Purple Rain (1984)

Firstly, there's the only film people associate with Prince. It benefited from what the show-biz folks like to call a “cross-platform” approach: a soundtrack album filled with unforgettably great songs, music videos for said songs featuring scenes from the movie, and the movie itself, showcasing the numbers.

Director Albert Magnoli was a lauded student filmmaker who made his big-screen debut here and went on to make action pictures (Tango & Cash, American Anthem). He wrote the script with William Blinn and clearly drew on old Hollywood melodramas about egomaniacal singers, from A Star Is Born to Jailhouse Rock (which seems to be a heavy influence on the depiction of the antihero lead). 

Purple Rain is chockablock with corny cliches, but the songs that punctuate the film are so great and the concert interludes so kinetic and exciting that the film ends up being an unintentionally campy delight.

The plot finds “the Kid” (Prince), a popular but moody and arrogant local rock-funk star (the setting is Prince's beloved hometown of Minneapolis) battling his chief rival, another creepy bandleader, Morris Day (playing a character named “Morris Day”; nearly everyone in the film plays a character named after themselves). The Kid's father (Clarence Williams III) beats his mother, his bandmates are pissed off at him for being a creep, and his newfound girlfriend (Apollonia) is wavering between him (“artistic integrity”) and Morris (“fame and fortune,” albeit only in one neighborhood in Minneapolis).

Magnoli wisely structured the picture around the songs and thus helped popularize the “video album” concept of the Eighties. As it stands, the single best moments of Prince on film are here: that crazy, frenzied little dance (see the GIF at the bottom of this piece) where he runs his hands over his hair and torso, a routine that can either be viewed (depending on your feelings for the Purple One) as incredibly sexy or indelibly funny, and the performance of “Darling Nikki,” the “filthy” song that outraged Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center.


The latter is a killer performance, oozing with sex, sleaziness, and the joy of rock-funk. It's unfortunate that the song is bracketed in the film's ridiculous plotline as being some kind of an onstage rebuke to Apollonia and Morris, so it is intercut with shots of people looking aghast. At this point and others in the film it's impossible not to equate the audience shots seen here and those in Stephen Sayadian's influential cult sci-fi porn feature Cafe Flesh (made as “Rinse Dream” in 1982). The images in Flesh are supposed to be disturbing and funny; the ones here are just funny.

Prince's acting is just as good as it needs to be. He is clearly outclassed by Clarence Williams III (the only “name” in the cast), who has to embody the tormented jazz-pianist dad, and even by Morris Day, who is a really amusing villain (taunting the Kid with a sneering “how's the family?” after Williams' character has just blown his brains out).

In the long run, Purple Rain is still worth watching because of its song score (which won an Oscar for Prince). Magnoli wisely gives up on the plot in the final segment of the film and just has Prince perform onstage, since that is all we wanted to see anyway.


Under the Cherry Moon (1986)
Now we move on to the films that most people are unaware of, or have forgotten, or have consciously tried to erase from their memory. Under the Cherry Moon isn't scripted by Prince (Becky Johnston, later to script The Prince of Tides, did those honors), but it's directed by him and it's clear that he oversaw most aspects of the production.

The bad news is that it's not a musical. The good news is that some sequences are so fuckin' awful that you might want to watch it (with a finger poised on the fast-forward button) when you're looking for a misguided, big star vanity vehicle. (I can't in good conscience tell anyone to watch it in real time I did that and needed to listen to Prince's music afterward to remind me that, yes, indeed the guy was immensely talented).

It's a stunningly over-baked piece of cine-crap that should have done for Prince's movie acting/directing career what Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969) did for Anthony Newley's activities in those areas (read: effectively kill them). Instead, Prince made one more fiction film (see below) and wisely then realized he better cut his losses and go back to music full-time.

As Purple Rain was an MTV-era evocation of the old “arrogant-singer learns his/her lesson” melodramas of Hollywood's Golden Age, Cherry Moon is a resurrection of the gigolo/crooked ladies-man comedies that starred charmers like Cary Grant and (later) Tony Curtis (one also thinks of the comedy Bedtime Story with Brando and David Niven, remade as Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).

The film is in black and white, but isn't set in the past. It takes place in the Eighties and features a Prince and the Revolution score. Thus you hear hard-assed rock drumming, synthesizers, and screeching guitar as you watch an old-fashioned (albeit with cursing), light-hearted comedy about love among the wealthy folks of Nice, France. Prince is a gigolo who constantly varies between formal speech and an “urban” African-American voice that constitutes his character. Jerome Benton (of the band The Time) plays his goofy sidekick.

The lovely young Kristin-Scott Thomas (in her first movie role) is Prince's wealthy object of desire, and among the supporting cast is British character-actor vet Victor Spinetti (the one true link between the aforementioned Newley movie and Cherry Moon). The most impressive names, however, were all behind the camera, including Mary Lambert, the initial director of the film, who is credited as Prince's directorial “consultant” (she had directed Madonna videos, and was later to direct Pet Sematary) and superlative production designer Richard Sylbert (Manchurian Candidate, Chinatown) who crafted the look of the film, a few years after he did Coppola's similarly retro Cotton Club.

The single biggest mind-blower in the credits for fans of great cinema is Michael Ballhaus as the DP (it is indicated in various places online that he was an uncredited co-director). Ballhaus is best known for his superb work with Fassbinder and Scorsese, and is by any measure one of the best cinematographers in the world. He's capable of bravura moments as here when there's a full 360-degree pan around a cabaret in which Prince is playing piano. The movement isn't inspired by anything in the plot, it's just gorgeously smooth and perfectly executed.

Ballhaus had done similar 360s in Fassbinder's work, most notably a brilliantly overwrought moment in Martha, when the lead characters meet and the camera pivots around them. Prince may not have seen Ballhaus's work with RWF, but he most likely did see his eye-catching camerawork for Scorsese's Color of Money (which, along with Newman's performance, is the backbone of that movie).

In any case, the main problem with Cherry Moon, as already noted, is that Prince chose not to make it a musical and doesn't sing onscreen, except for one interlude in a nightclub (which occurs a long, long 40 minutes into the film). The only hit to come from the soundtrack was the incredibly catchy “Kiss” (a hit for both Prince and Tom Jones), which is played during a (much, much) later kissing scene between Scott Thomas and Prince.

Prince definitely wanted to downplay the music in the film it's there as background and, even though his character is a pianist (and, for some insane reason, Scott Thomas plays the drums in one scene!), the moments that could have been exciting had they been made into musical numbers are instead just more of the goddamned plot, which is doomed from the start.

And, speaking of doomed, Prince gets to have a dramatic death scene at the end of the film. This is no spoiler his death is mentioned in the film's opening narration. As it stands, though, it's ridiculous, since tragic elements never appeared in the great light romantic comedies, and once Prince is killed, we're left with his sidekick living a happy life with his own French girlfriend (neither of whom have mattered much in the scheme of things).

The Artist Then Known As… did, however, have a heavy Christian belief system, so he adds more plot under the final credits. At that point, for no earthly reason (but you're no longer on Earth get it?) we see Prince and the Revolution performing a song in Heaven. Scott Thomas is now seen to be happy (she apparently is enjoying the concert in heaven, or something…) and Prince and the boyz (and Wendy and Lisa) are rockin' out as the movie ends in the clouds.

Cherry Moon was indeed a massive bomb at the box office and received awful reviews (I have been pretty kind thus far, given what a startling dud it is). It was Prince's “ultimate” effort to package himself as a movie star and “auteur” (he was indeed loved to pieces in France but again for his music, not the cinematic qualities of Purple Rain).

It was never brought up after it failed, although you can stream it for three dollars on YouTube (really, truly, though, there are online alternatives that are less or involve no dough at all). It bombed so badly that Prince's next (and last) fiction film was a Purple Rain sequel that was also misguided and ridiculously scripted. But at least it had some music….

Sign o the Times (1987)
After the failure of Cherry Moon, Prince directed a concert film to promote his eponymous double-LP (the title song from which is an absolutely spot-on summation of the Reagan era in a single pop tune). The film is the perfect sort of vehicle for his talents — it would've been great if he'd done a number of these concert pics, since his live performances were legendary for outshining his LPs and music videos (a format he never seemed in love with and only sporadically returned to once he was not being prodded to make them by his record company).

The concert sequences are framed by a sort-of-plot in which singer “Cat” is dropped by her boyfriend as Prince observes and considers “moving in” on the situation. Thankfully that can all be ignored, and you can just concentrate on the performances, which include songs that were catchy hits, including the title song, “U Got the Look,” “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.”

The most impressive thing about the music is that it beautifully reflects Prince’s influences: rock, funk, r&b, jazz, and gospel. The musicianship is terrific and, despite there being a music-video (with Sheila E., for “U Got the Look”) clumsily shoehorned into the film, these are killer versions of the songs that nicely spotlight different members of the band. Qualifying as MVP is Sheila E., who drums, sings, dances, and winds up being the most camera-friendly performer besides Prince himself.

It would be REALLY nice if the film were re-released on DVD with the live performances of his other, older songs that Prince cut out of the movie (which runs a mere 85 minutes, and unlike Cherry Moon, feels somewhat short).

Graffiti Bridge (1990)
The film that did finally convince Prince he'd better stick to scoring films (his soundtrack for the Tim Burton Batman was very well-received) was this one, the utterly crazy sequel to Purple Rain that dispensed with the drama that characterized that film and simply went for more outlandish cliches, this time all tied up with Prince's religious beliefs.

In this case, he was the full auteur (let's use the Jerry Lewis term “Total Filmmaker”), since he wrote the script in addition to starring, directing, scoring, and producing. Thankfully, the film was driven by songs, but they weren't on the level of the unforgettable numbers in Purple Rain. Sadly, there wasn't a single hit in the bunch (it's noted in various places that “Thieves in the Temple” went to No. 6 on the U.S. charts, but I dare you to sing or hum it unless you're a heavy-duty Prince fan).

The picture starts a few years on from the action of Purple Rain. This time Morris Day has somehow become the crooked owner of all the clubs in town (Minneapolis again, but this time a far more stylized, set-bound version of the city). His sidekicks wear coordinated outfits that would make the crooks on the old Batman series gag, and no one in town opposes Morris except “the Kid.”

The two rivals battle it out for the club and the conscience of their neighborhood and the hand of an otherworldly girl who appears in their midst (Ingrid Chavez, a Prince discovery who lacked a Top 40 hit, although she did cowrite “Justify My Love” for Madonna).

As a director, Prince seems to have copied both Blade Runner (the Minneapolis seen here has steam in the streets and blocks filled with nothing but neon-lit nightclubs) and Walter Hill's underrated Streets of Fire (1984) the script betrays many links to that film, including the fact that there don't seem to be any residents in the city who are not directly connected to one of the clubs owned by Day's character.

The film's cast is once again filled with Prince's fellow musicians, and two of his heroes, George Clinton and Mavis Staples (who both get to sing, with Mavis getting a full number). And while the most memorable thing Apollonia had to do in Purple Rain was to doff her leather outfit and jump naked in a lake, Chavez gets the wretched and thankless role of a poetry-writing angel (no shit!) who is trying to influence Morris to be good and Prince to follow his better instincts as an artist and motorcycle-riding Christ surrogate.

This last aspect dominates the end of the film, as Prince wears a Christ-like white outfit and performs a slow, forgettable ballad in the “battle of the bands” that his group (the New Power Generation) is having with Morris Day's The Time. By this time, Prince the screenwriter has forgotten about the Streets of Fire atmosphere and aims for the imagery of Godspell and its ilk by having himself crowd-surf in a crucified pose and generally get all Jesus-y.

The oddest thing about the film is the fact that this heavy-as-lead Christian message is intercut with the sleazy sexuality that was always the earmark of Prince's most memorable and fun work in the Eighties. Here there's a scene out of the blue where Morris's girlfriend does a striptease while doing a sleazy rap, right before the Kid is informed that he can't have Chavez's angel character because she is “His” (Chavez points to the sky to illustrate her point Jesus has the same taste in sexy chicks as the Kid!).


The Kid gets to live in this film (perhaps there was a dream of a third film, to form a trilogy?), but Graffiti Bridge was such an unmitigated disaster that it convinced Prince to step away from the camera and stick with his instruments and studio tools.

His music will live on for a long while. Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge are already pretty much forgotten (and can be forgotten as you're watching them), but are terrific examples of a major talent branching out and falling right into quicksand. I can't say how you will react after you see either, or god forbid both, of these films, but you might want to immediately immerse yourself in Prince's best music right after viewing. Then again, a stiff drink might also do the trick.