In 1984, Prince was so hot you could get blisters just from looking at him. After five increasingly spectacular albums, the phenomenon that was Purple Rain shot him into the stratosphere, and I think most of us would agree that it was a thoroughly deserved success. As I’ve already said in my earlier review, Prince delivered a 1-2 shot that was so irresistible he became the biggest star on the planet for a while. The film was – the occasional iffy performance, touch of sexism and cringey line of dialogue excepting – a triumph. It still stands up well today, with the performance material still utterly electrifying. The accompanying album was mind-blowingly great – a non-stop thriller (even more so than Thriller) of a pop juggernaut that, for better or worse, consolidated Prince in popular culture. I say worse in that it was the sort of album that everything Prince did afterwards was going to be judged against.
I mean, how the hell do you follow it? After all, Prince had not one but two albatrosses to conquer – a blockbusting album and a blockbusting film. On the musical front he remained as preposterously prolific as ever, with parts of Around the World in a Day already finished before Purple Rain had even been released, not to mention the wealth of still-unreleased stuff that lurks in his vault. Of course, the easy thing to do would have been to release another Purple Rain, but Around the World in a Day was a classic example of Prince not looking back, instead taking on a new wealth of influences, delivering something entirely different. Yet despite the low-key promotion (Prince wasn’t even in the video for first single ‘Paisley Park’) and the not so-hot reviews, the album still sold, just not in the same league as its predecessor. Fans wanting more ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ and ‘When Doves Cry’ might have been disappointed – the album rarely burned with the same white-hot electricity. It’s far more playful, bittersweet, weird and no, it’s not a blockbuster like Purple Rain, but its rewards are plentiful. It’s big hit – the effervescent ‘Raspberry Beret’ – is difficult to resist, the baroque tale of heartbreak that is ‘Condition of the Heart’ is one of his most beautiful ballads, ‘America’ rocks, ‘Paisley Park’ is pure utopian loveliness, ‘Pop Life’ home to one of the best piano + synth + slap bass hooks EVER and ‘Tamborine’ a delightful throwaway. Okay, ‘The Ladder’ was a bit too obviously ‘Purple Rain’ Part 2 and ‘Temptation’ a bonkers tale of sin, guilt and last-second redemption that won points for sheer bravura, but was still an oddly unsatisfying album closer. Then there was the real life stuff – Prince, already known for his reticence with the press, had now refused to contribute to the Stateside equivalent of Live Aid’s ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ – ‘We are the World’ – which wound up some of the press and the public a little, not to mention that on the night that the music world’s biggest and brightest were recording said song (and apparently eating caviar/drinking champagne, but let’s not concentrate on that), Prince’s bodyguard got into an violent altercation with a photographer (this and other contemporaneous events would be referenced in later B-side ‘Hello’). All of a sudden, Prince was a selfish jerk, a weirdo, etc. Still, the music. Damn good music. Ah yes, but what about the movies?
If Prince had quit while he was ahead cinematically and never released anything other than the Purple Rain movie, his celluloid legacy would have remained untarnished. However, everybody wanted more. Now, the obvious thing would have been Purple Rain 2, but Purple Rain was soooo 1984. No, this new film would have to be just as much a step into new territory as his music had been so good at doing. By the time Under the Cherry Moon had come out, even Around the World in a Day was last year’s news. He’d made another album, which would act as the soundtrack to the new movie.
That album, Parade, is a masterpiece on equal footing with Purple Rain. The Revolution-era of Prince is one of the most giddying, deliriously imaginative and varied capsules of music ever created by anyone, and that’s just the stuff that was officially released. Honestly, dig further, and there are even more unreleased riches to discover. If Around the World in a Day was an album full of gems but not quite a classic overall, Parade hits back with a vengeance, an expertly executed, almost scary-in-its-scope rollercoaster that continues the Prince momentum with flair, funk, ingenuity, beauty, humour and outright razzle-dazzle. The first stretch of music, an uninterrupted medley of breathtaking variety that takes in the carnival psychedelia of ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’, the so lean it’s malnourished strut of ‘New Position’ and the humid, Lisa Coleman-sung lust-funk of ‘I Wonder U’, packs more into its five or six minutes length than most albums could hope to accomplish. The dreamy balladry of ‘Under the Cherry Moon’, the jazzy ‘Girls and Boys’, monstrously epic ‘Life Can Be So Nice’, beautiful interlude ‘Venus de Milo’, the monumental, soaring ‘Mountains’, the delightfully cavalier ‘Do U Lie’, the overlooked single ‘Anotherloverholenyohead’ and heartbreaking closer ‘Sometimes it Snow in April’… oh, and ‘Kiss’. You know that one. I mean, the album’s just embarrassingly brilliant. Unfortunately, all of this musical genius was undermined by the accompanying movie, which was regarded as his first out-and-out failure. It probably didn’t help that Prince was listed as director – for critics this insanely multi-talented genius had gone step too far, like what, he can do anything? What was he going to do next, write children’s stories?
It’s an odd film. Unlike Purple Rain, which tapped into a cultural buzz and ended up defining it, Under the Cherry Moon has absolutely no likeminded ambitions. It’s Prince doing his thing, his own idiosyncratic thing, I’ll give Prince this – he’d could have done Purple Rain all over again, but Cherry Moon is so different to Purple Rain that it almost feels like an act of perversion. The most obvious thing is that it’s in black and white. I mean, the 1980s – the most day-glo, neon-drenched decade of them all, reduced to monochrome? What was he thinking? Also, even though the personal elements of Purple Rain made for some surprising drama, I’m going to wager that everybody’s favourite bits in that film was the performance stuff. Cherry Moon has almost no footage of Prince actually singing or playing. Only one song – ‘Girls and Boys’ – gets ‘performed’, and even that’s rudely cut-off halfway. The Revolution don’t feature, except for the ‘Mountains’ promo that plays over the end credits. You can either hate this film for its refusal to play by expectations or just enjoy the ride.
The plot? Well, first of all it seems to be set in an undefined time period that looks like it’s set in the 1920’s, what with its Jazz Age ambience, yet there are references to Sam Cooke and Miles Davis, plus one of the characters starts singing ‘Planet Rock’, so where the hell are we, the eighties? Prince plays Christopher Tracy, a narcissistic gigolo/pianist who loves seducing the money out of the local high society women on the French Riviera. He’s assisted by his fellow conman brother Tricky (Jerome Benton), with whom he has a flirty, homoerotic chemistry. The latest rich girl on the block is Mary (Kristin Scott-Thomas), who’s potentially worth a cool 50 million dollars. So Christopher begins his seduction, but what starts out as mere mercenary greed soon blossoms into….yep, love. The thing is, Mary’s already engaged to someone she doesn’t love, and her criminal father (Steven Berkoff) isn’t going to take too kindly to some flash hustler trying to rip off the family. Yeah, it’s an old, old, old story, but filming it in monochrome actually makes everything here seem agreeably old-fashioned anyway. The director of photography, Michael Ballhaus, was a Scorsese collaborator at this time, so it’s no surprise that this is one very fine looking movie – it was rumoured that Ballhaus had actually co-directed the movie with Prince after original director Mary Lambert was ejected from the scene.
The plot stuff is pretty loose – there are often scenes of Christopher and Tricky goofing around, trying to charm their way out of paying the rent on their flat, or showing up Mary’s ignorance (the highly amusing ‘Wrecka Stow’ sequence). There’s a gag involving bats which comes out of absolutely nowhere, and yet it’s kinda genius – I love it for its sheer randomness. There’s also a bit where Prince channels Bela Lugosi’s bizarro close-ups – absolutely mad. There are also an awful lot of shots of Prince and Mary kissing, if you like seeing that in close-up. Well, one of the songs on the soundtrack is called ‘Kiss’ – what did you expect? For the most part it’s a breezy, fun ride. There’s little of the darkness and misogyny that lurked underneath Purple Rain, and while Mary is initially treated as a figure of fun, it’s more to do with her class roots than her gender. I think.
As for Prince himself, it was noted around the time of Purple Rain‘s release that The Kid was a thinly veiled depiction of himself, but here he seems to be trying something else. Maybe there’s a lot of Prince in Christopher; who knows? Like The Kid, he’s hardly a flattering example of humanity, though instead of the former’s ugliness, here it’s more do with gaucheness and arrested development. There’s a rather telling scene later on when Christopher calls Mary late at night – she’s already smitten and is lying in her bed (listening to an instrumental of ‘I Wonder U’ – if that’s not music to get you in the mood then I don’t know what is) and she asks what’s on Christopher’s mind. He responds with the goofiest delivery of the word ‘sex’ possible, like he’s struggling to keep it together and not blow the charade. You realise that at this stage that Christopher is still a child at heart, despite the reality of these adult complications he’s involved himself in. Sex is definitely a game to this guy – he behaves like an adolescent (even more so than The Kid), a coquettish schemer with a gamut of poses and moves that resembles role play and not actual adult sexuality. He’s a little brat. Tricky is no better – the pair of them deserve each other. Still, they are funny together – it’s nice to see Prince actually play off another actor following the sulky sullenness of his Purple Rain interactions, and his and Benton’s scenes are a pleasure.
There are hints throughout that all this romantic treachery could end badly, but still, seeing Christopher get gunned down at the film’s climax was a bit of a jolt, like a compilation album with nine party tracks that ends with Joy Division’s ‘Decades’. Okay, maybe not that severe, but still! To be fair, the album does something similar – the momentum of the first eleven songs are so breathlessly exciting that the downer of ‘Sometimes it Snows in April’ comes as a shock. Yet like that song’s title suggests, life can be full of sudden left-turns. Besides, ‘April’ is one of Prince’s most beautiful songs, whereas the ending of Under the Cherry Moon doesn’t quite have the dramatic punch it was probably hoping for. In fact, such is the generic nature of the boy-meets-girl/class divide/vengeful father plot that a lot of the film doesn’t really have much in the way of emotional heft. It’s all been done before, I suppose. The pleasures of this film lie in the little bits, the little idiosyncrasies, and of course, the songs, if you can hear them. Unlike Purple Rain, where all nine songs were heavily integrated into the film’s fabric, almost acting as a commentary on the action. Under the Cherry Moon prefers to showcase Parade‘s songs as background material – sometimes they dominate a scene, like ‘Christopher Tracy’s Parade’ soundtracking the establishing shots of the Riviera, or ‘Kiss’ and ‘Anotherloverholenyohead’ dominating later scenes, and of course the aforementioned ‘Girls and Boys’, but other times they’re just there to a little extra ambience. A waste of great songs, you may think. You may be right.
So, is it actually a misunderstood gem? Hmm. Hear me out. I love Prince, particularly 80’s Prince, so I feel that everything he did during this time was touched by some kind of genius. Yes, even this. It has a ebullient, effervescent charm that I find pretty appealing. It has been noted that the more fun the crew had on a film set, the less fun it ends up being for the viewer. This can apply mostly to comedies, where everybody seems to be getting off on their own jokes, more so than the audience. I get the feeling that Prince and his mates were goofing around on the set – Cherry Moon is hardly an outstanding example of watertight narrative or originality, but it gets by on an easy-going vibe. Most of the humour in Purple Rain was of the unintentional kind, like when Prince was going off on one of his tantrums, or the occasional wooden supporting performance. Here, the comedy is most definitely intentional.
Ultimately, Under the Cherry Moon will remain a curio, but I like it. Yeah, it got slagged, but Prince was moving too fast to seem to care too much. After Cherry Moon, Prince broke up the Revolution, tried to release a triple-album called Crystal Ball which fell through and, combined with other unreleased projects, emerged as Sign ‘O’ the Times, which many regard as Prince’s artistic peak (not me, but it’s still a 5-star experience). This was followed by the acclaimed concert film of the same name, which usually doesn’t get lumped in with Prince’s other three films because, aside from a few dramatic segues between songs, it’s essentially a gig set to celluloid. Then there was the attempt to get back to funk basics with the salacious The Black Album, which was pulled by Prince at the last minute for various reasons the most rumoured being that he took Ecstasy and God told him not to release such unsavoury material. Good move there from the Man Upstairs, because had it been released, The Black Album would have been (in my opinion) Prince’s weakest album of the 80’s. A good album for sure, but not great. The swiftly created Lovesexy was the ‘good’ to The Black Album’s ‘evil’ and was a deliriously funky, often spectacular ride through Prince’s spiritual and physical obsessions. Maybe not quite on the same level as his last few albums, but damn, damn fine nonetheless. Then came Batman, which brought renewed commercial success thanks to the film itself, and did have plenty of engaging songs in it (the sparkling ‘Vicki Waiting’, the fun ‘Partyman’ and especially the gorgeous ‘Scandalous’, for me his best recorded seduction) but the overall quality was a step down from before. A few genuinely mediocre songs (‘The Arms of Orion’, ‘Lemon Crush’) didn’t help.