Friday night on BBC Four in the UK sees the rare broadcast of a documentary on the musician Prince. Though the doc itself barely mentions his film oeuvre (mind you, not many people do), I wanted to take a look at the Purple One’s erratic but nevertheless fascinating movie career; a career which has earned him an Oscar, a Golden Globe, numerous Razzies and involved some pretty talented people (and some not so).
Purple Rain (1984)
Although the common perception of Prince’s first film was that of a turkey (in the UK at least), Purple Rain was a huge success in the US. Not only that, its success was propelled by the repeat custom where, for want of a better phrase, the youngsters were coming back time and again to watch the film in theatres, enjoying it like a gig.
The film itself is a tight production that was well aware of the acting limitations of the musicians involved. Prince himself is monosyllabic and “mysterious” but pulls it off with his mind-boggingly charisma-fuelled stage renditions of tracks such as Let’s Go Crazy and Darling Nikki and every dart of his doe-like eyes.
Of course, the burgeoning appeal of MTV and the music video surely helped with the film’s success (When Doves Cry seemed to be on constant repeat in the mid-80s) but the broad appeal of the story – rival groups, a smattering of comedy, disgruntled band members and love (not to mention sex), saw Purple Rain hit the jackpot.
Looking back, it’s a product of its time. Though it proudly wore its sexuality and racial blending (with casual abandon, rightly never addressing it, and just rolling with it), Purple Rain reeks of the 80s era much in the same way Weird Science and St Elmo’s Fire do. And, to be honest, that’s fine with me. A snapshot of the decade through the eyes of the man that was always ahead of the game (in those days, anyway), the film still has a power to admire.
Fact fans, and cynics, may want to note that the film took in almost ten times as much as it cost to produce, won an Oscar, and the accompanying album is still the world’s biggest selling soundtrack. Not a bad achievement at all.
Under The Cherry Moon (1986)
Widely lambasted by critics and ignored at the box office (taking less than its production costs), Prince’s follow-up, regardless of opinions, does have some very interesting, not to mention hugely talented names attached to it.
On the cast front, you have the overwhelming force that is Steven Berkoff (Beverly Hills Cop), who replaced an equally gregarious actor, Terence Stamp (Superman II), after he walked off the project (not the only person to do so). His performance, and it is a performance, is huge. The Berk-a-tron is clearly having a good time, but does treat Cherry Moon rather like one of his one-man shows (not neccessarily a negative, it should be said).
Also bolstering the cast was the now familiar Kristin Scott Thomas (Four Weddings And A Funeral, The English Patient). The actress has been very dismissive of the film since, but Thomas portrays the spoilt rich daughter with some aplomb. Most oddly, though, is the appearance of Victor Spinetti (A Hard Day’s Night) who shows that Prince does indeed have a whimsical sense of humour.
The talent doesn’t end there. Madonna video director Mary Lambert (the controversial Like A Prayer and iconic Material Girl are just two of her contributions), helmed the project to begin with until, you guessed it, she walked off – leaving Prince in charge. As a side-note, Lambert is now directing such excellent TV fodder as Mega Python Vs Gatoroid (starring 80s teen sensations Tiffany and Deborah Gibson).
But there’s more: taking director of photography duties on Cherry Moon was none other than longtime Scorsese collaborator, Michael Ballhaus (though at that point the German lensman had only worked on a couple of movies with the New York director). The Color Of Money would be released the same year, and his career would go on from strength to strength with diverse films like Goodfellas, Air Force One and Quiz Show. It has to be said, Under The Cherry Moon does look utterly beautiful.
If Purple Rain was a product of its time, then Under The Cherry Moon is doubly so. It’s rife with material wealth, the hunt for money and possessions and meaningless sexual conquests (although good old love shines through in the end, cough). It’s almost like Wall Street on the French coast (which is odd, as it predates the Oliver Stone flick by just over a year).
The soundtrack is less obvious than Purple Rain‘s, with many tracks appearing in the background or just for a few moments but, for me, Parade (the name given to the Cherry Moon soundtrack release) outstrips its predecessor’s stadium crowd-pleasing tones. It’s is an eclectic mix through pop funk, jazz and rock, with some enchanting strings thrown in for good measure and a huge smattering of sex.
Under The Cherry Moon may not be as good as its soundtrack, but it has charm and style – something akin to the man himself, and a trait missing from most movies at the multiplex.
Sign O’ The Times (1988)
Without wanting to jump into hyperbole, this is simply the greatest concert movie ever made. It’s also, without a doubt, Prince’s finest contribution to cinema. Though calling it a concert movie is something of a misnomer, as much of the footage was actually shot in the Purple One’s Paisley Park studios.
Regardless of how he achieved them, the results are phenomenal, as Prince cracks his way through the immense 1987 double-album, lifting some rather mediocre tracks (by his standards at least) into the realm of the sublime. His energy as a performer is bewildering, using the stage and his band to create a showpiece like no other.
Sadly for Prince, his success in the US was beginning to wane. European audiences were lapping his post-Purple Rain output but Americans seemed less enamoured. Sign O’ the Times was an attempt to reinvigorate the same-titled album, but failed, as only critics seemed to appreciate the artistry of the Minneapolis-based funker.
You may slightly smirk at the ongoing plot (such as it is), but you’ll sit in admiration at a man at the very height of his powers, entertaining with every jive of his hips, flexing of the legs and journey through an album full of pop, rock, funk, soul, political messages and a huge dollop of sex – a great way to spend 88 minutes, I think you’ll agree.
Graffiti Bridge (1990)
I won’t waste your time with this one. It’s an absolute stinker with no redeeming features whatsoever. Even the soundtrack is as poor as the acting. The sequel to his first foray into cinema, Purple Rain, was to be his last – and it’s not difficult to see why.
Apart from the cast and the cheap sets, the story is garbled and redundant with equally appalling characters. Prince should have known something was up when both Kim Bassinger and Madonna turned down parts in the film (though their complicated relationships with him may have been a deciding factor).
Something interesting about Graffiti Bridge? It stars Ingrid Chavez, who co-wrote the aforementioned Madonna’s Justify My Love with Lenny Kravitz. Yup, that’s the most interesting thing about the movie.
Not content with his own films, in 1989 Prince also gave us the soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman (not the score, it should be added), notching up even more hit singles with tunes like Batdance (featuring heavy use of dialogue and sounds from the film – a most unusual pop single at the time) and Partyman. Ever the giver, he also supplied some new songs (and some oldies) for Spike Lee’s mess Girl 6 (notable for cameos from Madonna, Quentin Tarantino and Halle Berry).
The song Movie Star features Prince comically lamenting, “Man, I hate making movies. But I like that money.” Well, the money certainly dried up on the celluloid front and, with more than 20 years since his last film, it would appear that the movie bug has truly left him.
In the short space of six years, Prince starred in four films, directed three and produced a string of multi-million selling albums (as well as doing his day job of musical genius and performing world tours). A noteworthy film career at least, no?