Baby, He’s a Star: Prince’s Life in Film

It’s something of an understatement to note that Prince has done some strange things over the course of his career, but since these have almost all been bad ideas (replacing his name with a symbol? Releasing several dozen albums in the late ’90s? Recording duets with Carmen Electra? Making a concept album about his conversion to the Jehovah’s Witnesses?) one cannot accuse him of being a careerist, shrewdly calculating the commercial potential in his art and how to cash in on trends. The one and only time he was in sync with the zeitgeist — the mid-’80s, when Purple Rain‘s tremendous popularity made him a permanent superstar — seemed to have been something of a fluke. Michael Jackson’s fame had paved the way for androgynous black performers, and MTV, then still in its early unformatted days, promoted a pop-culture syncretism that suited Prince’s flamboyant genre mishmash perfectly. And Flashdance had proved movie audiences were amenable to the MTV-derived formula of stringing together music videos and overwrought melodrama with an incoherent wisp of a plot to make movies whose chief purpose was to drive sales of the soundtrack album.

Thus, 1984 was the perfect year for Prince’s film debut, in which he played “the Kid,” a thinly disguised and surprisingly repellent version of himself coming to terms with the immensity of his own ego (he declares himself a “messiah” in the film’s final sequence), a character who is only really watchable when he is performing. It’s a testament to how powerful the concert sequences were, and how much they overshadow the rest of the film, that Purple Rain was a critical success, with some reviewers lauding it with four stars and rave recommendations. Viewing it 25 years later, unaffected by music-video fever, it is far more obvious that it’s an exciting concert film but a terrible movie. On stage, Prince is entirely at ease and in control, completely confident in his charisma as he works through his repertoire of James Brown moves and leads his band through a great set of concise, cohesive songs. It’s absurd that in the diegesis we are supposed to believe that his band isn’t drawing and isn’t killing the competition. Really? We are supposed to think that the Time, a mediocre dance-funk band led by the now-forgotten Prince protégé Morris Day, has any chance of outperforming the Kid?

But when Prince is offstage, cruising the streets of Minneapolis (dim and gray; transformed into one of those quintessential 1980s post-apocalyptic worlds where all the survivors are New Wave) on his motorcycle with his round-mirror-lens sunglasses and his toreador outfits, he comes across as a bit ludicrous and vaguely embarrassing, like when you see a Goth kid working at the supermarket. He has about all the screen presence of Jon Cryer in Pretty in Pink. Though his lines are minimized by the frequent and extensive montage sequences, he seems diminished and awkward, unbearably self-conscious. Over the course of his fumbling, chemistry-free courtship of the mannequin-like Apollonia — the film’s love interest — he relies on gestures that probably seem so natural on stage, but seem clumsy and hackneyed elsewhere.

The script, which utterly fails to live up to the intensity conveyed by the music, gives him no help; the desultory dialogue is about as convincing and dramatic as the overdubbed lines in Pat Benatar’s “Love Is a Battlefield” video. And the movie’s rampant misogyny is indefensible: not only is a woman thrown into a dumpster for no apparent reason in one of the initial scenes, but throughout the film Apollonia is a masochistic punching bag. When she is not jumping in a lake topless out of the Kid’s offhand desire to humiliate her, or being posed in lingerie for the audience’s delectation, she is absorbing condescending lechery from Day and literal blows from the Kid as she is batted back and forth between them. And one of the Kid’s key concessions to maturity — his deigning to perform a song written by “the girls” in his band — amounts to a backhanded compliment; we’re supposed to admire him for recognizing the song’s quality more than we are Wendy and Lisa for writing it.

Ostensibly, the film’s dramatic core is supposed to be the Kid’s relation to his father, a vaguely religious failed musician and domestic abuser who tries to commit suicide at the film’s climax. (We know this is the climax because it’s followed by an epic spazz-out that has Prince destroying things wantonly while the soundtrack swells with quasi-psychedelic horror-movie music.) But that only plays tangentially into what seems to be the most resonant issue, especially considering what was to come: Prince’s uneasy relationship to mainstream success. The key scene is when the manager of the club at which the bands play confronts the Kid about the self-indulgence of his music. “No one digs your music but yourself,” he tells the Kid several times — which is ironic, since never was this less true in the context of Prince’s career. The film even gives us a glimpse of Prince the reclusive studio whiz when he brings Apollonia to his basement, full of whimsical, Neverlandesque touches, and plays her a tape of a woman crying spooled backward. The scene, a prelude to a sex scene, may be intended to show the Kid’s vulnerability, but instead we get a sense of just how willfully inaccessible he is.

It’s clear from the film’s narrative arc that we are supposed to regard his fear of success as a character flaw that the Kid ultimately transcends, as his father, with his reams of unpublished songs, failed to. But the moral is muddled by the entirely negative depiction of Apollonia’s ambitiousness — after her successful (in the film, anyway) debut, she is risibly drunk and on the verge of de facto prostitution when the Kid bikes up to rescue her from herself. This prefigures the position Prince would stake out on his next album with “Pop Life”, but even in Purple Rain there’s an undercurrent that suggests it’s better to reject success, withdraw, and maintain an artistic purity.

It turned out that a film about the need to embrace compromises to achieve recognition would give Prince the license to be as perverse as he wanted to be in his choices for the rest of his career. Unlike with Purple Rain, Prince would seize total artistic control over his next film, the highly anticipated and backlash-begging Under the Cherry Moon, which rapidly degenerated into what by all appearances was a vanity-project fiasco. Shot in black and white in the south of France, and given a peculiar Art Deco sheen, Under the Cherry Moon attempts to be more like a real movie and less a series of music videos and montages.

For better or for worse, Prince attempts to play an actual character…

For better or for worse, Prince attempts to play an actual character: Christopher Tracy, who at first seems meant to come across as a free-spirited, outrageously dressed cabaret gigolo who hustles the underserviced wives of pan-European oligarchs. (In many ways, this film is no less misogynistic than Purple Rain.) But as Prince plays him, he is coquettish and ceaselessly juvenile. Christopher is attended to by an ambigiously gay assistant/manservant, Tricky, played by Jerome Benton, the only other holdover from Purple Rain‘s cast. The plot chronicles Christopher’s doomed love for debutante heiress Mary Sharon, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, in one of her first film roles.

It may seem like a plus that actual talents like Thomas and veteran character actors like Steven Berkhoff (the villain of Beverly Hills Cop) and Francesca Annis (the mother of Muad’Dib in David Lynch’s Dune) were recruited for the film, but they mainly have the effect of underscoring how inept Prince himself is. And they in turn feel at liberty to ham it up opposite him as much as they please. Purple Rain wisely made efforts to minimize the amount of screen time Prince had to spend acting, showing him mainly performing in concert. Under the Cherry Moon, unfortunately, has few sequences of Prince performing (a stilted dance routine set to “Girls & Boys”, and “Mountains,” played over the closing credits) and far, far too many of his and Thomas’s heavy petting, which are full of hackneyed quivering, clichéd close-ups (two hands clenching in ecstasy, for instance) and some artless, disturbingly aggressive grinding reminiscent of a poorly chaperoned high-school dance.

The film seems to be set in some weird amalgam of the ’30s and the mid-1980s, in what may have been an attempt to illustrate the two different worlds that Christopher and Mary come from crashing together. But the tone comes across as inconsistent to the point of schizophrenia. The soundtrack has a few nods to Depression-era showtunes (particularly “Do U Lie?”) and some of the bit players adopt Hollywood Golden Age faux-English accents. But Prince and Benton’s diction is peppered with contemporary slang, and it’s anomalous to say the least when Mary gets behind a drum kit to play funk beats and lead a chant of “Planet Rock”. In general, the glitzy locales and elaborate costuming make the movie’s mise-en-scène seem like a lavish and lazily executed Christian Lacroix fashion shoot.

But for all its obvious flaws, Under the Cherry Moon has a tone and a emotional logic all its own. The film seems to be intentionally campy, which is to say, per Susan Sontag, that it fails to be campy. But oddly, all the mugging for the camera and the clumsy attempts at aping period films comes across as meta-campy — Prince’s apparent unawareness of how forced his efforts at campiness are transforms them into a higher, more rarefied form of camp. At that level of self-referentiality, it becomes hard to sort out what was intentional and what was accidental. As with all camp, there is the distinct possibility that the film’s peculiarity is meant to weed audience members out rather than draw them in. What would be left then is a hardend cadre of true devotees willing to indulge and support all of Prince’s whims.

Prince was clearly still preoccupied with the price of fame. Some may have regarded Purple Rain a sellout after his edgier, more groundbreaking early albums; Under the Cherry Moon seems designed to further alienate the fans who may have been baffled by the meandering hippie-isms of Around the World in a Day. The film’s brilliant soundtrack, released as Parade, pushed his music simultaneously in two directions, balancing some of the leanest and most percussive tracks he had ever recorded with virtually baroque, heavily orchestrated numbers that seemed calculated to display his virtuosity. What both styles had in common were the way in which they strained for some vanishing point at which they would cease to be recognizable as pop music and would live only as the sui generis creatures of Prince’s febrile brain.

The film also features Prince deliberately testing boundaries, but with far less creative success. Instead he pushes the limits of bad taste (Liberace is namedropped in one scene). Under the Cherry Moon reprises the theme from Purple Rain of professionalism being a kind of prostitution. In an early scene, Christopher, who has crashed Mary’s birthday gala, tells Mary’s mother, “I do nothing professionally. I only do things for fun.” This is ironic coming from the avowed gigolo, but it becomes the film’s central motif: the difficulty of telling the difference between love and greed, between true passion and rote professionalism. Christopher and Mary’s love (which peaks with probably the least exciting car-race scene ever filmed) falls to pieces when a jealous Tricky (jealous of who? It’s hard to say) reveals Christopher’s earlier scheming for her money. For her part, Mary seems poised to go through with her engagement to a wealthy suitor to please her empire-building father. And the cinematography seems to be caught up in the dilemma — during Christopher and Mary’s makeout sessions, the camera keeps wandering to their richly embroidered clothes to catch glimmers and sparkles.

After Christopher is exposed, Mary delivers the film’s pivotal speech, an elaboration of the sentiment expressed in the spoken-word section of Purple Rain‘s “The Beautiful Ones”. She tells her mother, “You’ve painted a picture of a perfect world, and you framed it with hypocrisy, stubbornness, and lies. And you’ve hung it on a trust fund that I can’t get until I marry a man I don’t even love … mother, look at me. I am the painting.” Prince seems to be saying the same thing to his audience, that he recognizes the degree to which he has induced himself to live out someone else’s ideal, but he knows that inevitably “the beautiful ones always smash the picture, always, every time.” Under the Cherry Moon seems like Prince’s preemptive self-destruction, conducted in the cheesiest, most lighthearted manner possible given the egos, the pressure, the expectations involved with its making.

After Under the Cherry Moon, Prince more or less gave up on acting, though he did appear again as the Kid in the abysmal Purple Rain sequel, Grafitti Bridge. Instead, he intensified his efforts to scatter his own actual identity, surrendering his name and dissolving into a serious of ever more implausible roles for films no one would want to see made.