With the sad, tragic, and horribly premature passing of Prince – one of the most skilled songwriters and astonishingly captivating performers of the modern era – much will be said about the musical output of this icon, and much will be written about his famous struggles with record companies, his confronting brand of sexuality, his undeniable eccentricities, and his singular gift for reinvention. Little will be said, however, of Prince’s occasional detours into the world of film, where he was met with a mix of disdain and confusion, despite boasting a small but sometimes impressive body of work.
Prince’s movie debut came in 1984 with Albert Magnoli’s glitzy, thundering kind-sorta biopic, Purple Rain, which tapped elements of the funk rocker’s life decades before the same was done for Eminem in Eight Mile. As aspiring rock star, The Kid, Prince’s performance was a little stiff and unconvincing, but when it came to the film’s musical sequences, he was near flammable, delivering stunning versions of songs (“Let’s Go Crazy”, the extraordinary title track) that would become some of his biggest and most iconic hits. A striking sight in wet curls, dandy-to-the-extreme wardrobe, and stacked-high boots (“People say I’m wearing heels because I’m short,” Prince once said. “I wear heels because the women like ‘em”), Prince was a movie hero never before seen, a volcanic cocktail of primping peacock and macho brute.
In the film, his treatment of the women in his backing band – the great Wendy and Lisa – is near sneering and dismissive, while his tricking of romantic interest, Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), into jumping naked into a river is borderline misogynistic. “Now, wait, wait,” Prince said in Rock & Soul when asked about the film’s perceived sexism. “I didn’t write Purple Rain. Someone else did. And it was a story, a fictional story, and should be perceived that way. Violence is something that happens in everyday life, and we were only telling a story. I wish it was looked at that way, because I don’t think anything we did was unnecessary. Sometimes, for the sake of humor, we may’ve gone overboard. And if that was the case, then I’m sorry, but it was not the intention.” By film’s end, however, The Kid (the victim of a violent father) has learned a lesson in humility and become decidedly more sympathetic. Purple Rain was a smash hit, and while it didn’t quite make Prince a movie star (though it did win him an Oscar!), it still stands as a 1980s classic and an enjoyably unrestrained entry into the rock movie genre.
After Purple Rain, Prince’s cinematic output would become increasingly peculiar, with the musician stepping behind the camera for the rest of his big screen projects. While 1987’s Sign O’ The Times was a cut-above, highly stylised concert movie, 1986’s Under The Cherry Moon was a far kinkier affair. “It’s a French film,” Prince said. “It’s a black-and-white French film.” In this dark-candy eye-popper, Prince plays Christopher Tracy, a gigolo of curious, indeterminate sexuality who runs a scam ripping off older women. Hot off his musical stardom, Prince directs like a kid let loose in a candy store, with the film playing out like a particularly arty and unusual music video. The film was met with much derision despite its loopy charm, and was far better than 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, a semi-sequel to Purple Rain, shot almost entirely on a neon-funk set built at Prince’s 65,000-square-foot Paisley Park sound stage. While Purple Rain was ragged and aggressive, and Under The Cherry Moon was cheeky and fun, Graffiti Bridge was a pious, spiritual mess, and marked a sad and disappointing end to Prince’s feature filmmaking career.
Though it obviously never truly lit up like his life in music, Prince’s career as a filmmaker was, in some ways, exactly as it should have been: strange, experimental, idiosyncratic, darkly sexy, uninhibited, shot through with flashes of deranged genius, and well and truly his own and nobody else’s.