The Beautiful Ones: The Films Of Prince

We account and review all the movies of Prince. Rest in Peace, purple one. 

Not many artists can cross the line between rock stardom and box office glory. Prince attempted to do so with three different films. An acting career that started out with the box office smash Purple Rain came to a slow and decisive death with the third and last entry in his six year box office run.

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Purple Rain (1984 – directed by Albert Magnoli)
Inarguably one of the greatest rock movies of all time, Purple Rain is the semi-autobiographical account of its titular rock star hero’s rise from rags to riches: Prince!  Familiar to countless fans around the world and considered to be the second best album of the 1980s, Purple Rain cemented the purple one’s reputation as one of the most important musical talents to emerge from the late '70s R&B/funk scene. Where Prince had developed a steady following with albums like Dirty Mind, Controversy and 1999, it was Purple Rain that turned the androgynous rocker into a household name.  Among the few multimedia projects that succeeded in propelling the film, soundtrack and promotional videos on MTV to the forefront, Purple Rain is at once a concert film of Prince and the Revolution as well as rival band The Time with Morris Day and melodrama about turning personal quandary and turmoil into creative musical expression. 

Purple Rain came at a time when the music scene was bursting at the seams with originality, creativity, and a sexually charged energy. The film was ripe with perfected costume design, stage lighting, and a concert setting that was integral to the story's mid-eighties feel. The club environment felt realistic and the stage scenes are some of the most realistic ever put to screen. Always on the backburner of the movie, The Revolution put their best foot forward with performances that were the filmed equivalent to their real life live shows.While all of this makes for a great and entertaining piece of rock and roll nostalgia, the core of the story lies in Prince's self portrayal as a diffident artist and musician that could outperform and outplay anyone that might challenge him despite his lack of self esteem. 

Featuring some less than stellar acting and cheesy melodramatics, the film presented Prince as a down on his luck artist that just couldn't get a leg up on his formative music scene opponents. In reality, the reverse was true. Prince gained a massive following while his on-screen enemies, The Time only became a minor pop sensation that people quickly lost interest in. After Purple Rain, Prince continued on to become a household name and still puts out artistic albums that are centered on his own musical interests instead of standard pop sensibilities. 

9/10 -CG/Andrew Kotwicki

Under the Cherry Moon (1986 – directed by Prince)
Coming off the high watermark established by both the film and soundtrack to the 1984 smash hit Purple Rain, Prince had reached a mainstream apex in his illustrious musical career.  If you didn’t own any Prince albums before Purple Rain, you certainly quickly updated your collection with his back catalog.  Naturally, Warner Brothers was eager to push for another potentially commercially successful follow up to one of their greatest moneymakers.  In the time honored tradition of self-sabotage designed to alienate casual fans and utterly confound those who stuck around, Prince responded by making back to back two of his most bizarre, indulgent and unabashedly ridiculous creations of his career (and perhaps all time), the album Around the World in a Day and what would become his first stab at film directing, Under the Cherry Moon.

Originally shot in color by Martin Scorsese’s director of photography Michael Ballhaus (later tinted to black and white at Prince’s request), Under the Cherry Moon is a period piece set in 1940s France telling the story of a gigolo named Christopher Tracy (Prince) and his partner in crime Tricky (Jerome Benton from The Time).  Upon his carefree exploits of party crashing and swindling French women, Christopher Tracy meets a wealthy heiress named Mary Sharon (Kristen Scott Thomas’ acting debut) and falls in love with her.  The rest in between is an out and out vanity project showcasing Prince behaving as weird as humanly possible when he’s not reciting dialogue so laughably awful you honestly wonder if it was written by a 6th grader.  For those wanting to see the purple one rock out on the First Avenue Nightclub, they were in for one stomach tightening odd experience that would either make viewers chuckle at the peculiarity on display or curl up into a ball.
Under the Cherry Moon is probably as close to Prince’s actual unexpurgated personality as executives and band members have seen behind closed doors.  Where Purple Rain kept some of his peculiarities in check, Under the Cherry Moon allows him to let it all hang out be show everyone who he really is.  Take for instance a scene near the beginning where he looks directly into the camera with a “Bela Lugosi” face.  This is likely the same bizarre face that pitched the project to Warner Brothers in the first place, whose reactions to the artist’s idea feel somewhere between mortification while harboring a grudging hope that it’ll all come out in the wash.  Just look at the film’s marketing materials with the tagline ‘See It, Hear It, Feel It, Live It’.  Pretty clearly Warner had no idea what the Hell to do with Under the Cherry Moon.

While Under the Cherry Moon is technically a bad movie that flopped at the box office, its major redeeming factor beyond unintentional hilarity is the soundtrack Parade featuring the hit song Kiss.  Prince fans naturally added it to their collection and Kiss still gets heavy radio play as well as covers in films like Happy Feet (which Prince contributed an original song to, incidentally).  But with the prior album Around the World in a Day and the film in question, Prince succeeded in creating a divide between himself and the public at large.  To this day it’s regarded as a failed curiosity of absurdist period comedy and Prince being his frankest self the silver screen had ever seen.  At least Kiss and Kristen Scott Thomas emerged from it intact and it doesn’t come anywhere near the depths of the barrel scraped by his second and final film as a director, Graffiti Bridge.

5/10 - Andrew Kotwicki

Graffiti Bridge (1990 – written and directed by Prince)
Originally intended as a showcase for Morris Day and The Time before evolving into an official sequel to Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge picks up where the aforementioned film left off following The Kid (Prince) who is now both a successful musician and owner of a club named Glam Slam.  Once again, the battleground is fought between The Kid and Morris Day over the rights to the Glam Slam, only this time the film is stillborn and worst of all, impotent.  Where Under the Cherry Moon managed to provide a modicum of hilarity with some damn good songs included, Graffiti Bridge tests the waters of even the most devoted fans of the purple one’s canon with its largely forgettable songs and almost oppressive set pieces that look like a mish mash between Blade Runner and the Panther segment in Michael Jackson’s Black or White.  Not even the inclusion of George Clinton thrown into the mix can elevate this nearly intolerable mess to a watchable level.   

Besides being antithetical to Purple Rain in terms of realism (and enjoyment for that matter), Graffiti Bridge philosophically rejects Purple Rain’s notions of collaborative artistic expression with Prince receding further and further into a one-man show.  While Prince and the Revolution ostensibly has always been Prince’s baby, there was a degree of balance between the band members and the purple one.  By now, Prince had long sworn off his Revolution mates and replaced them with what would briefly become the New Power Generation.  Seen in this context, Graffiti Bridge was understandably an attempt to promote the newly formed band.  While the recently formed troupe did manage to attain success among Prince devotees in the marketplace, Graffiti Bridge plays like an iceberg striking the ill-fated Titanic, sinking the ship slowly long before the party has even begun.

Mercifully, the utter commercial and critical failure of both the film and the accompanying soundtrack that followed (which quickly became a bargain bin favorite on audiocassette) sealed the deal on any further Prince oriented major feature films in Hollywood.  For fans of both bad movies and everything that is Prince, this is a really tough pill to swallow.  While full of artifice and numerous concert numbers, the whole thing blurs together in a fashion that tragically embarrassing and ugly.  As a longtime fan of the androgynous musical maestro myself, I really have nothing good to say about this one at all.

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1/10 -Andrew Kotwicki