Remember in the ’60s when Prince starred in that French romantic comedy? Well, I guess that didn’t happen per se, but it’s kind of what his 1986 directorial debut UNDER THE CHERRY MOON feels like. It’s not really a period piece, but it’s filmed in gorgeous black and white (grain perfectly preserved on the excellent new Blu-Ray transfer), has a goofy old fashioned tone and doesn’t have many contemporary styles or references outside of the amazing soundtrack by Prince and the Revolution. The many songs we know as the album Parade (biggest hit: “Kiss”), but there’s also plenty of great instrumental music in there that’s sadly not on the soundtrack.
Prince plays Christopher Tracy, a slick gigolo type from Miami, currently on the Riviera living off of rich French women who he seduces during his job as pianist at a restaurant. He has it down to a science. Best friend/roommate/possibly brother Tricky (Jerome Benton from The Time) is a very effeminate fellow pussyhound who is in awe of Christopher’s skills as he lays in the bath tub improvising love poems over the phone. He’s designed to deliver a certain type of pleasure to a certain type of woman, and it helps that he looks like Prince.
The romcom formula kicks into gear when these love vultures learn of a party for the 21st birthday of the heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas, ONLY GOD FORGIVES, in her first role), when she will inherit $50 million. They crash the party with plans for Chris to figure out how to marry her.
Mary has an entrance to top all subsequent “Manic Pixie Dreamgirls”: she joins the ritzy backyard mansion party wearing only a towel, sits in with the band, playing a funky beat and leading the crowd in a chant of “Planet Rock, you just don’t stop.”
I like her!
Then we get one of the movie’s best laughs when Christopher enters wearing a high collared backless coat with exposed hairy chest and strikes the ultimate make-sweet-love-to-me pose from across the yard. At first I thought I was laughing at Prince being over-the-top, then I realized he was in on it and just going for it. For the character, the aggressive suaveness that you see on the poster is kind of a put-on that he uses to sucker rich ladies.
My other favorite gag is the out-of-nowhere non-sequitur when Chris and Tricky are in a restaurant and Chris mentions “I ain’t afraid of shit.”
“Are you afraid of bats?” Tricky asks, gesturing up to some bats on the ceiling. Chris lets out a high-pitched scream and runs out. Cut to everyone fleeing the restaurant like it’s being attacked by The Blob. Then nothing like that ever happens again in the movie.
You never could’ve seen that weird shit coming, but otherwise they do everything you expect with this story: she’s supicious of him, she avoids him, they bicker, they flirt, she warms to him, they make love, they fight, Tricky gets jealous, he snitches on Chris, she ditches him, but now he really loves her and doesn’t care about the money anymore and has to prove it. After the abusive relationship in PURPLE RAIN it’s a relief to have a love this simple.
Like so many iconic songs from PURPLE RAIN I totally forgot that the lyrics of “Kiss” were talking about the plot of the movie! “You don’t have to be rich to be my girl…” So now I’m gonna have to picture a remake with old Tom Jones trying to marry a young heiress for her money and then deciding love is more important.
The songs add so much, but I think it would be fun to watch even without them. Prince is sometimes in PURPLE-RAIN-talking-through-a-puppet mode, and I don’t always get his weird silliness, but you can tell he’s having fun. He does a weird laugh and a comical jump into a convertible (on accident?) but most of his humor is just from being so Prince, from strutting around in audacious outfits, and wooing Mary by bringing her on a skiff to a grotto where they make love by candlelight in a cave. That could almost be one of his lyrics.
The movie leans harder on the romance than the comedy, which works mainly because Mary is so charming, ably fending off Christopher’s advances with witty barbs before falling for him. Prince had originally wanted the role to go to Susannah Melvoin (Wendy’s twin sister who was the “U” in “Nothing Compares 2 U”) but she was not an actor, and cooler heads prevailed. 25-year-old rookie Scott Thomas was a real find (though he kisses her sloppily). She told the AV Club that “He was my God at the time. I was listening to ‘Raspberry Beret’ on my Walkman en boucle, non-stop, on big headphones… So suddenly to be called into this sort of court of this strange and peculiar and brilliant person who had chose me…”
In a ballsy move, UNDER THE CHERRY MOON climaxes with pure melodrama and tragedy, and it’s probly unearned, but it works because of the song that plays. I have to admit, Parade was never an album I listened to very much over the years, so I really didn’t become very familiar with “Sometimes It Snows in April” until Prince died and D’Angelo tearfully sang it as a tribute on The Tonight Show. It played almost as if Prince had written it to comfort us in the event of his April death. I don’t fully understand the song, and it’s even odder in the context of the movie, where he’s singing about the death of his own character. Maybe from the perspective of Tricky? “I used 2 cry 4 Tracy because I wanted to see him again / Those kind of cars don’t pass u every day.”
Despite the sad ending, the credits are a celebration. Wendy & Lisa and the other members of the Revolution are sadly missing from the cast of the movie, but we get to see them perform “Mountains” over the end credits, a nice black and white music video. They seem to be floating on a white background, which I take as Christopher Tracy’s afterlife. So maybe we need a prequel about how The Revolution died before Christopher.
One great thing this has in common with PURPLE RAIN is a chance to hear Prince playing solo piano. Here it builds from an intimate tune to an orchestral piece (with the help of arranger Clare Fischer):
He made that song and then he didn’t even put it on the album!
After the movie, Prince found himself in some musical turmoil. He disbanded the Revolution, and spent alot of time on two albums that never came out (Dream Factory and Camille). But that work evolved into the classic double album and companion concert film Sign o’ the Times, so it has a happy ending. Unlike the movie.
In 1984, PURPLE RAIN, the movie and soundtrack album, had turned Prince from rock star to rock sun. His 1985 followup was Around the World in a Day, the album known for “Raspberry Beret.” And then it was time for another movie, one that was totally different from his debut. Everybody loved PURPLE RAIN because they’d never seen anything like it, but obviously some of them were gonna hate his next movie when it turned out they’d never seen anything like it either – in other words, it wasn’t PURPLE RAIN 2: DEZ’S REVENGE. Parade went platinum, but the movie was not a huge hit and got terrible reviews. Predictably, the tasteless shitbags at the Razzies gave it five awards including Worst Picture (tied with HOWARD THE DUCK) and Worst Original Song for “Love or Money.” I had to look up what that was, because it’s not on the album. Turns out it’s this cool little song:
I know there are people such as Joe Hallenbeck and Sir Nose who don’t like funk, but what kind of a dumb weiner considers this the worst original song of 1986? Well, obviously the same chumps who nominated Kristin Scott Thomas for “Worst New Star.” Ha ha, Prince thinks he can make a movie, what a dumb lady she is in a Prince movie, what talentless trash (cut to Oscar nomination for THE ENGLISH PATIENT).
Unlike the Razzies’ embarrassing celebrity-gossip-based film analysis for morons, UNDER THE CHERRY MOON has held up well and even benefited from the passage of time. It stands as a unique specimen among ’80s cinema, among movie vehicles for pop stars, and among Prince’s gigantic body of work. Even setting aside whether or not you enjoy the content, it’s undeniably a beautiful looking movie thanks to the German cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, who had just teamed with Martin Scorsese for AFTER HOURS and would stick with him for THE COLOR OF MONEY, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST, GOODFELLAS, THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, GANGS OF NEW YORK and THE DEPARTED. Let’s also note production designer Richard Sylbert (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, CHINATOWN, THE COTTON CLUB, DICK TRACY) and art director Damien Lanfranchi (Truffaut’s DAY FOR NIGHT, Van Damme’s DOUBLE TEAM). Together they found how to take perhaps the one man on the planet most closely associated with a color and make him look great in a world without any.
Screenwriter Becky Johnston seems to have come out of the underground art world, because she worked in the crew of Lizzie Borden’s BORN IN FLAMES and shot some famous interviews with Jean-Michel Basquiat. She later wrote PRINCE OF TIDES and SEVEN YEARS IN TIBET, and is still around, having written a so-far-unproduced sequel to SALT.
I noticed PET SEMATARY director Mary Lambert was credited as “creative consultant.” At the time she’d only directed music videos (“Borderline” and “Like a Virgin” by Madonna, “Control” and “Nasty” by Janet Jackson), and this would’ve been her feature debut except Prince decided to fire her after about two weeks of filming. As the saying goes, if you want something done right, have Prince do it.