Monday, April 9, 2007

Prince, Star of Stage and Screen

Prince: a Spotlight

Somebody bring him a mirror.

Spencer Owen, BERKELEY

Bear with me here. We go through phases, my friends, and I write this smack-dab in the middle of a phase where I can't find much motivation to write about movies. I've only seen one great film that's come out in my area in 2007, and it was Zodiac, and I haven't done much home viewing either. I now present "taking it where I can get it," the "it" being that cursed motivation.

A parallel phase, although I seem to be at the tail-end of this one, is that I've been incredibly into Prince. I go deep into musicians and filmmakers, but especially musicians, to the point where someone will say to me, "Man, you are obsessed with that." To me, it makes a lot of sense. If I like something by somebody enough, I'll explore their work further and deeper until I feel like I've heard or seen enough for now. The so-called obsession lasts a relatively brief time, usually, and it can come in waves. But until the saturation point or points, it's a thorough wade through the pleasure-waters of what I imagine as "where that person is/those people are coming from." Around the release of INLAND EMPIRE, "it" was David Lynch. On New Year's Eve, I saw Neil Hamburger at the Hemlock Tavern in San Francisco and I was utterly taken with him for the first month of '07; Neil was "it." Last spring and summer, Steely Dan was "it" (by the way, "Deacon Blues" was in Zodiac). Some months ago, I found out about an enormous amount of unreleased Prince material, and thus "it" was – and has been, and still, to some degree, is – Prince. Don't we all have these phases, too? I guess that, the way I operate, with me it can look like an obsession. So be it.

Luckily, my phase can branch off into multimedia, because Prince isn't just a musician. He's also an actor, and ... a filmmaker! Stop laughing. He really has made two honest-to-God feature-length narratives. And check yourself: Purple Rain (1984) isn't one of them. That leaves two movies you likely haven't heard of, both directed by Prince Rogers Nelson: Under the Cherry Moon (1986) and Graffiti Bridge (1990).

The best movie among them is Purple Rain. Prince, the Revolution, and his other Minneapolis cohorts had so much damned charisma back in the day that the movie could have been just as good even if it had been directed a bit worse, but director Albert Magnoli does pull off a mid-'80s confection, and his work should be respected. Purple Rain is worth seeing, and you should really try to see it in a theater with an excited audience. I saw it at the Parkway Speakeasy in Oakland and the audience behaved exactly as I'd hoped to make it a wonderful night: laughed, shouted, shushed, sang and clapped at all the right parts. It's not just because every movie should be viewed with its ideal and respectful audience that I say this; Purple Rain is a variety show, with comedy and drama played for mass appeal, and some show-stopping musical numbers (some of which are performed live and some not – guess which!) on the stage of the First Avenue Club in Minneapolis. Prince's character, the Kid, does not convince you that he should be called "the Kid," or indeed anything but Prince. He's odd, soft-spoken, and somewhat stilted, but he's magnetic nonetheless. As my friend Jamie put it, the movie really does take place in a sort of Princeworld, so whether things make sense or not is irrelevant. It's one of those movies.

The worst movie of the three, and Prince's second (and presently final) turn at the helm of a feature, is Graffiti Bridge. It is an interesting companion to Purple Rain. Rephrased more accurately, it is interesting that it exists and what it attempts is interesting, but it is not an interesting movie. Starting in 1990, Prince's music shifted somewhat abruptly in a manner that would far more often mask his personality with things generic and flat, whether lyrically or in the arrangement and production, or both. The Graffiti Bridge project may serve sufficiently to mark the distinction between '80s Prince and early '90s Prince. His return as the Kid is disappointing; his charisma is gone, all quirks ironed out, and the songs make no splash. Morris Day and the Time, such a dynamic and breezily comical fixture in Purple Rain, make a return and barely inject some life into it; the rest of the supporting players generally pale in comparison to the sassy members of the Revolution. Another key shift: Princeworld in Graffiti Bridge isn't Minneapolis, but a sound stage at his own Paisley Park Studios, and no amount of dutch angles or neon colors can make this an appealing place.

The best phrase I can think of to adequately describe the aesthetic of Graffiti Bridge would be "mystical urban cinema." Prince wrote the script as well, and he lays the mystique and quasi-mysticism thick, with no insightful poetry to be found, only a jumble of personal spirituality that he fails to clearly communicate at any point. As for "urban," I refer both to the African-American city life aspect and the Prince-penned-and-produced black music in the film. The former rings distant and false, and the latter falls quite short. I tend to validate the existence of this project only by four of the songs from the resulting soundtrack – and they are "Elephants and Flowers," "Joy in Repetition," the top-10-hit "Thieves in the Temple" and the Time's "Release It" – and unlike with Purple Rain, nothing is gained by experiencing them in the film; they're simply decent studio recordings, no more or less.

So Prince tried to follow up Purple Rain and he failed. In between the smashing success of Purple Rain and the somewhat embarrassing failure of Graffiti Bridge, however, was a much more respectable failure in the form of his first directorial effort, Under the Cherry Moon. The third and final album by Prince and the Revolution is titled Parade, and it's just about as outstanding as the other two; a fact that even casual Prince fans might not have fully assimilated is that the full title of the album is Parade: Music from the Motion Picture "Under the Cherry Moon." The music is used in the film almost exclusively as incidental cues, yet despite the high quality of the tunes, it doesn't bother me that only one of them gets musical-number treatment (the funk jam "Girls and Boys"). Even merely as background, the songs are welcome in the movie, despite the Revolution being sorely missed as on-screen players, and despite it being a black-and-white period piece set in 1930s Paris.

No, it isn't really a period piece. It supposedly takes place in that period, but to call the dialogue and mannerisms anachronistic would be to suggest that any attempt other than pure visual aesthetic was being made to realistically evoke the era. Becky Johnston's script is often quite adequate, and Prince's Christopher Tracy character is very different than either incarnation of the Kid. He's sly, quick and talkative, and though the comedy is fairly base, he really is a pleasure to watch; he certainly holds his own as a romantic lead against the debut of future-Oscar-nominee Kristin Scott Thomas. (I find it amusing to note that in her first scene, Thomas is playing a drum set unaccompanied, and she really appears to be doing it, and competently.) He's also got a great sidekick relationship with the Time's Jerome Benton as his best friend and roommate, very playful and even a tad homoerotic.

An example of the movie's charm comes in a scene where the aristocratic Thomas is at dinner with the street-wise Americans Prince and Jerome. They're poking fun at her high-class European ways; they show her a piece of paper with "WRECKA STOW" written on it and ask her to read it. Every time she says it in her accent, thoroughly convinced that it is nonsense, they die laughing and she gets more peeved. Finally Prince prompts her: "If you wanted to buy a Sam Cooke album, where would you go?" Her answer – of course, "the wrecka stow" - sends them into fits. This is the kind of infectious good-silly that much of the film contains, the funky playfulness that Prince shows off in spades on the concert stage and finally gets to mess around with here on celluloid.

Sadly, the movie's total effect is unfortunate. The style, though more successful than the ambience of Graffiti Bridge, dead-ends for sure. By the time we're on a foggy airfield, I'm ready to wish Prince had never even seen Casablanca. Worst of all, the characters' personalities and relationships, so likable for the majority of the picture, imminently dissolve into mechanical plot resolution. If the movie had stayed together, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it alongside Purple Rain. But I find it telling that just about the best thing in Under the Cherry Moon, aside from the leading man performance Prince pulls off beautifully in all but the last act, is what the ending credits roll over: the compelling music video to the Parade album track "Mountains." (I found it on Youtube, but the quality is horrific. Rent the DVD if you want to see that. It's great, promise.)

Probably needless to say, I wouldn't recommend navigating Prince's persona through his film work. If you're gonna watch the movies he directed, wait until you've assimilated his entire musical output up through 1989, and even then I must stress that Graffiti Bridge is a real snore no matter how you slice it. But feel free to dive into Purple Rain right away. I'm not usually one to use popular success as a measure of anything but itself, but Prince became a bonafide superstar on the strength of Purple Rain, and you should be able to see why.


mlucas said...

Steely dan Spencer? Ouch.

matt lucas

Spencer Owen said...

Steely Dan are the best.

The best!

mlucas said...

you have some pretty severe delusions. when are you playing in the east bay again?

Spencer Owen said...

Good question...