Sign "O" the Times
Directed by Prince
At the USA Harvard Square
PRINCE has appeared in three movies in his short cinematic career which have run the gamut of praise (or lack of praise) depending on how much music he performs on the silver screen.
Purple Rain was a throbbing mixture of acting and some performing which got some critical acclaim. Under the cherry Moon was a radical shift away from performing into acting. The movie enjoyed (suffered?) a very short run, although Prince and Jerome Benton came off as natural comedians (the "Wrecka Stow" scene was one of the funniest in recent cinematic history).
Sign "O" the Times, however, shifts to the opposite extreme and concentrates almost exclusively on Prince's considerable performing talents and virtually dispenses with acting. Prince has at last found the proper balance--for himself, anyway--between performance time (correctly top-heavy) and vignettes between songs (judiciously short).
In the past, directors have used many different ideas of how to package a rock concert into a movie. Woodstock, for example, was a documentary. Other films have had some small real-life subplots--Bring On The Night had Sting's expectation of his baby hanging over it. And the number of unadulterated concert videos has skyrocketed.
Sign "O" the Times could have been left alone as one of these concert videos. But from the very beginning, it is clear that Sign is no ordinary concert reel. On a mock-up of his concert set, Prince and some of his band members act out the first of many vignettes designed to augment the concert action. Then the music begins.
From the first few notes, Sign feels like being back inside First Avenue in Minneapolis; Prince is on a small stage under purple lights. But something feels different--the Prince on stage is not the Prince of the Purple Rain years. Peach-colored light fills the stage, and Prince begins to jam with very heavy Hendrix-style guitar riffs. By the time Sheila E. comes out on stage with the rest of the concert band, the audience is ready to break with the past.
INDEED, the musical content of the film is a sharp break; all of the tunes are taken from the Sign "O" the Times LP, and none of Prince's voluminous repertoire is played, save a few bars of "Little Red Corvette." But this is what seems to give Sign "O" The Times, the movie, its overall character. It would be foolish to clutter the conceptual Sign with leftovers from Parade or 1999.
The rich visual concepts that the music offers manifest themselves in the little scenes which appear between songs. They range from a conversation at a newsstand (which reappears on the set during "I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man") to a scene where Prince, resplendent in his peach-colored glasses, sits in a chair and reminisces; the rock video "U Got The Look" plays in his head.
Prince carries the creativity of the direction of the vignettes to the stage. The film highlights the interplay between the backup singers as they do a madcap strut across the stage or act out a street game of craps, something which might have otherwise been lost on the viewer.
Prince is perpetual motion onstage. He bounces around the stage like a pogo stick and does his usual James Brown microphone tricks. But in this movie he has more--Cat.
It turns out that this backup singer has some pretty good dance moves as well, making for endless possibilities for interplay between her and Prince. And in more than one tune they meet--with electric results.
The "If I was Your Girlfriend" sequence begins with Cat on a bed, staring out a window. She is watching the band playing the titillating song. Eventually, Cat meets up with Prince on the top of the stage in front of a heart-shaped looking glass which tilts slowly, and the two "lovers" lie down on it as two neon signs forming the words "LOVE" and "SEX" glint in the mirror.
As for the rest of the band, Wendy and Lisa are conspicuous omissions. Only Matt Fink, he of the stethoscope and the sunglasses, remains from the Purple Rain days.
But the music is still as strong, with the unique horn-playing of Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss leading the way. Sheila E. is a percussion virtuoso and even gets a few minutes to rev up the crowd by herself. Of course, she succeeds. And keyboardist/vocalist Boni Boyer gives a terrific performance, adding great gospel sound to "Forever In My Life."
The movie is more than just 85 minutes' worth of concert footage from Rotterdam. Indeed, when Prince finishes up with "The Cross," you know that you have experienced something special.
Sign "O" the Times is touring the nation and is playing on a very limited number of screens. Unfortunately, after a brief run, it has already been relegated to weekend midnight movie screens in the Boston area. Thankfully, one of those is the Harvard Square Theater. Go see it.