So closely is Prince’s star image linked to the 1984 blockbuster Purple Rain that it’s easy to forget he starred in two other feature films. And not just starred: he directed Under the Cherry Moon (1986), and both directed and wrote Graffiti Bridge (1990). Generally remembered as catastrophic misfires, there is even now a degree of schadenfreude when people discuss Prince’s ambitions as a filmmaker: how dare he be a musical legend and an interesting director? Sure, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge may not be Purple Rain, but bad news for the haters – they’re genuinely sweet, fun, and in their own way, sincere little movies. And now, over a year since his unexpected death shocked the world, they’re reminders of Prince’s unique brand of joy, love and spirituality; the three things he unrelentingly championed through his music for almost four decades.
It was perhaps no surprise that there was a rush to profit on the success of Purple Rain, and Mary Lambert was initially signed up to direct Under the Cherry Moon on the back of the success of her music videos for Madonna. Cracks began to appear in the creative relationship between Prince and Lambert early in the project (the latter whom would make the cult Stephen King film adaptation Pet Sematary a few years later). Prince took over the directorial reigns to move the project in what he felt was the right direction. On paper, that vision should have been nothing less than majestic: its Production Designer was Richard Sylbert from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club, and his Director of Photography was the celebrated Michael Ballhaus (who had worked with everyone from Rainer Werner Fassbinder to Martin Scorsese). If that wasn’t enough, Prince also gave the luminous Kristin Scott Thomas her debut feature film break, kickstarting the career of one of the most accomplished and revered British actors of the past thirty-five years.
Shot by Ballhaus in breathtaking black-and-white, Prince did not hold back in the creation of a vaguely retro fantasy world influenced as much by Federico Fellini’s 8½ as Classical Hollywood screwball comedy.There is little in Under the Cherry Moon that disguised Prince’s status as a European art-cinema wannabe, no doubt irking American critics and audiences in particular, standing in notable contrast to the overt Americana of Purple Rain. But his crimes went even further: unlike Purple Rain, Under the Cherry Moon had only one live musical performance, the glittering “Girls and Boys” from the film’s soundtrack album Parade. Still heralded as one of Prince’s greatest records, Parade by all accounts succeeded where the film it accompanied fizzled, both in sales and its critical reception.
Watch 'Under The Cherry Moon' at SBS On Demand
Under the Cherry Moon may be ambitious, kooky and at times even gawky, but what its unfairly harsh reputation ignores is its warmth and often charming silliness. It is nothing less than a cinematic manifestation of Prince’s impish smile come to life, played out on screen in 100 glorious (but not always coherent) minutes. Directing the more positively-received live concert film Sign o’ the Times in 1987, Prince brushed off the critical detritus hurled at him for Under the Cherry Moon and moved ahead to his final feature directorial effort, 1990’s Graffiti Bridge. Faring no better with critics and audiences, the failure of Graffiti Bridge undoubtedly hurt more than his earlier movie: while Under the Cherry Moon was a giddy stylistic romp, Graffiti Bridge was something altogether different. For Prince, it was more personal, a project verging almost upon the sacred.
A loose sequel to Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge finds The Kid (Prince) back playing guitar and signing at a club, in search for a musical truth that stands in opposition to the cynical corporate tat of his competitors (again embodied in the delightfully ludicrous Morris Day, reviving his role from Purple Rain as The Kid’s musical and romantic nemesis). At the heart of tensions between The Kid – still haunted by the family issues played out in Purple Rain – and Morris lies the figure of Aura (Ingrid Chavez), as much an ethereal symbol of spiritual enlightenment as an old-fashioned love interest. Selected for the part only after Madonna and Prince’s one-time lover Kim Basinger turned down the role, even in Graffiti Bridge’s wobblier moments Chavez is still captivating. Aura achieves her sense of otherworldly transcendence more through Chavez’s striking presence and her undeniable on-screen spark with Prince himself than through the actual poetry she reads in a clunky voiceover throughout the movie. She’s no Apollonia, but she’s not meant to be: this is a grown-up lover for a grown-up Kid.
Graffiti Bridge is at its heart a musical about spiritual enlightenment, a ponderous dominant thread that stands in contrast to the film’s most memorable elements. Like Purple Rain, it’s the explosive energy of the film’s musical numbers – nowhere more jaw-dropping than the opening performance of “New Power Generation” – that remain its highlights. But in Graffiti Bridge, Prince was determined to bring spirituality to the fore, to grant it an explicit place in the world of music and love that he championed across thirty-nine studio albums alone. Similarly, his signature cheeky, sexy spark that manifested so explicitly in songs like Cream, Kiss, and Alphabet St. is embedded in every frame of Under a Cherry Moon. While not sharing the positive cult reputation of Purple Rain, these films play just as much a part – perhaps even more – of keeping the things that Prince represented alive: joy, love, music, spirituality, sexuality. This is the world Prince showed for us through song and, for a few strange, precious moments, through cinema.
Watch 'Graffiti Bridge' at SBS On Demand