One of the most stealthy pop rehabilitations in the past decade has been that of Prince. Ten years ago he was in creative limbo after a series of poor selling albums presented under that incomprehensible squiggle.
Now however he’s appearing at the right parties and his tours are sell-outs. That’s despite his recent albums not doing anything like the business of his most creative period when he sprung the album and tie-in movie Purple Rain, reissued as a 20th anniversary double-disc DVD edition in 2004 (with a bonus disc of featurettes, videos and so on).
Surprisingly, given Purple Rain is as much of the 80s as Desperately Seeking Susan, it stood up . . . Well, if not well. Then well enough. This was the period when women wore lingerie on the outside, men had stilettos, and everyone sported eye-liner and big hair.
Prince was how we wanted our rock stars to be then: sexy, stylish, and making exciting music. He might have dressed like a pimp at the court of Louis XIV but at least he made an effort to look like a star, and the movie had great songs like When Doves Cry, Let’s Go Crazy and the title track.
Of course it’s hard to be engaged by the film’s plotlines: Prince’s tormented relationship with his screw-up father might have been more affecting if Prince had been 16 and not 26; there’s sketchy dissent in the band; and a cliché conflict with Morris Day as the hammy bad guy. No one can act of course, but it captured Prince at the top of his musical game with Wendy and Lisa, Bobby Z and so on. And some sultry and sleazy scenes with Apollonia.
After that Prince’s movie career went haywire with Under The Cherry Moon (1986) and Graffiti Bridge (90), both out on mid-price DVD with videos added.
Cherry Moon, filmed in gorgeous black’n’white, could be a camp classic if it weren’t for its tedious story and astonishingly bad acting. The opening sequence (below) is worth seeing however. As the oily, piano-playing gigolo Prince is all fluttering eyelashes, pouts and effeminate come-ons. Quite why any woman would be attracted to him is a mystery, he’d always be competing for time at the mirror.
From the flirty piano sequence to the pan across his tight backside which follows, this was overt homo-erotica with remarkably little memorable music other than Kiss. Oddly Kristin Scott Thomas appeared as the love interest (this was her first movie role, so we should be forgiving) and acclaimed actor/director Steven Berkoff as her father. Prince may not have been much of a writer/director (or actor) but he had real pulling power at the time.
Or maybe these two worthies weren’t doing anything that month.
Graffiti Bridge was pure cartoon melodrama -- as with Purple Rain, to which it is a loose sequel, he is fighting to have his music heard, again Morris Day is the bad guy -- but it also has quasi-spiritual overtones and is little more than a series of video clips. Madonna liked Prince’s screenplay so much she turned down flat her role as a mysterious angel. She always was a smart one.
Graffiti Bridge died at the box-office and these does can’t even boast much of a cult following. It’s awful and the quasi-messianic role Prince wrote for himself is very uncomfortable.
Under the Cherry Moon may be Prince's funniest and most outre-camp outing, but Purple Rain remains his defining movie. Like Eminem’s 8 Mile it is about musical battles in clubs against the backdrop of dysfunctional families. Both are self-mythologising films, yet they couldn’t be more different.
In Purple Rain the clubs are inviting places bathed in warm light and full of beautiful people partying. For Eminem in the tougher 90s there was no glitzy escape into music, it was grim warfare. Life for him went from the trailer park to the factory floor.
Purple Rain stands as an interesting mirror-opposite to 8 Mile, it held out the promise of a mirror-ball world where the party would never end.
It was the 80s, after all.