Tom Jolliffe on the cinematic legacy of Prince…
This time last year the world lost one of the music industry’s most influential artists. A man of immense musical talent, capable of producing utter brilliance. Like many musical artists who hit the highest peaks of stardom, there is the lure of diversifying their abilities and heading into the film business. Bowie, Sting, Jagger, Jackson and more. That said very few took such creative control as Prince did, when at the height of his stardom he starred in three films (much as I love some of his soundtracks, such as Batman, or concert films, I’m only looking at his fictional starring roles).
The three films vary in quality. The high point of course was Purple Rain. Under The Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge were deeply flawed and those latter two represented Prince at his most unrestrained and egotistic. However, Prince at his most self-indulgent is of course still capable of producing utter brilliance. Since he first produced an album he’s had almost complete control of most of what he delivers. Prince had carte blanche.
We’ll save Purple Rain for last given its iconic nature. Lesser known are the following two films. Under the Cherry Moon sees Prince playing a con-man who scams money from rich women with his brother. The film is ridiculous, campy and a bit terrible. Prince proves here that he’s not as blessed as an actor as he is a musician. The film is perhaps notable for featuring Kristin Scott-Thomas, looking almost permanently embarrassed in an early role. There’s some good actors here, turning up for the paycheck (Steven Berkoff and Francesca Annis) though.
The film (directed by Prince) has its charms. It’s beautifully shot. The film really looks great and it’s pretty lavish and of course when it comes to the music, whilst it’s not Prince’s best album by a long shot it’s got a couple of his iconic tracks. Kiss is a classic track, notably covered later by Tom Jones, but Prince’s version remains the definitive and most superbly crafted one. Sometimes It Snows in April is a great track. Serene, thoughtful and a fine example of the purple one’s ease with pulling things back with an intimate track. The remainder of the album is enjoyable, and another highlight is one of Prince’s most underrated tracks. Mountains is a great tune. Again, it’s great crafting, catchy, funky and melodic. It’s a fantastic song but one that isn’t often remembered.
Graffiti Bridge (written and directed by Prince) is probably the weakest of the three. Again though, it’s not without its charms. This unofficial sequel to Purple Rain sees “The Kid” (Prince) as a nightclub owner battling with a rival for a club. It also brings back Morris Day (with The Time) who appeared in Purple Rain. Much like Cherry Moon, Graffiti Bridge isn’t blessed with the best acting. It’s unintentionally campy and Prince’s constant pouting and posing makes the film often amusing. These latter two films (and indeed parts of Purple Rain) are entertainingly bad.
The soundtrack is a mixed bag. It’s got a plethora of nice funky tracks, if a little forgettable. The headline track is Thieves in the Temple which is a good Prince song. It’s a greatest hits track, no doubt but it’s perhaps not Iconic. The title track is average. The 90’s were a mixed bag for Prince as he searched for a new musical identity and development of his sound. He still produced great albums, particularly in the early 90’s (before the symbol phase which was one of his weaker periods), but Graffiti Bridge marked the close of his golden hit period. Behind it were albums like Sign of the Times, Purple Rain and 1999. It remains a listenable album, but one of his weaker efforts of that period.
Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge saw Prince indulging every creative whim, without really offering anything of himself to the film. This is where Purple Rain is different. It does have similar flaws but it feels more personal. The story has some basis in Prince’s own upbringing. He may not be a great actor but there are moments in the film, in scenes between “The Kid” and his parents which are touching. His father, a failed musician, turned alcoholic is a dark, somewhat tragic figure in the film.
The film has great visuals. There’s a definite music video sensibility here, but it also offers a cinematographic love letter to Hollywood. The musical numbers work better here than in the other films for two reasons. First and most important, the tracks are exceptional. It’s undoubtedly his finest album and it’s wall to wall brilliance. Secondly the songs fit well within the film. They become part of the story and more solid direction (Albert Magnoli), honing Princes vision really helps. As Purple Rain plays out within the film, it works on every level. The song tells a story, and it plays out beautifully within the film.
As said, the soundtrack is superb. Even aside from Prince, the music from “The Time” is funktastic. However it’s the album itself that provides some inspirational music. Starting with Let’s Go Crazy it works through a number of big hits like When The Doves Cry, I Would Die 4 You, and it all culminates in the magnificent and soulful titular track. Purple Rain is an epic gospel infused song that represents the pinnacle of Prince’s talents. Aside from all the many hits that the film spawned the album has the controversial but brilliant track, Darling Nikki. It’s Prince at his most unapologetically unrestrained and brash.
The three films make for a good marathon it must be said. Purple Rain remains a genuine piece of musical history. The film actually holds up well, despite the inconsistencies, but the music is exceptional. Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge can be enjoyed on another level. They’re just so ridiculous and campy that they are enjoyable to watch. A year on, Prince is still missed but his musical legacy will live on forever. These three films perfectly encapsulate his talents, his finer points and his unabashed ego. They are all indisputably Prince.