Critic’s Notebook: Prince’s Subversive Screen Persona Was Crucial to His Musical Genius

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Prince's films and videos add up to one long, fascinating post-modern striptease, all knowing smiles and salacious glances at the camera, showing everything but revealing nothing.

Even if he never had written a note of music, Prince Rogers Nelson was always a visually arresting performer, a living work of art. His screen persona proved vital to his musical career, helping to construct a signature audio-visual aesthetic that combined soft porn with high art, carnal fantasy with spiritual ecstasy. Crucially, cameras loved him. More than loved him, they adored and consumed him. Prince was beautiful and charismatic, and boy, did he know it.

Boldly subverting racial and gender norms, Prince played the role of hypersexualized androgynous dandy to the hilt, a dazzling peacock performance to rival fellow full-spectrum rock and soul legends like Little Richard, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown and David Bowie. He may have been ambivalent about appearing onscreen, preferring his natural habitat of the concert stage, but he knew how to flirt with an audience of millions. His films and videos add up to one long post-modern striptease, all knowing smiles and salacious glances at the camera, showing everything but revealing nothing.

Prince was not a natural actor, only amassing a slim body of film work, but his imperial phase in the mid-1980s was crucially connected to movies. The high-water mark of his screen career was, of course, Purple Rain (1984). Directed and co-written by Albert Magnoli, this thinly veiled biopic about the singer’s rise to fame in Minneapolis is thick with clunky dialogue and hackneyed plot twists, but it works just fine on its own terms as a gloriously overblown baroque ’n’ roll opera. It also won Prince an Oscar (for original song score) and helped to sell over 20 million copies of its soundtrack album, which featured the massive worldwide hits "When Doves Cry" and "Let’s Go Crazy." Thanks to the big screen, Prince became a global megastar.

His later attempts at directing himself onscreen proved overambitious and flawed. Prince's next movie project after Purple Rain was Under the Cherry Moon (1986), a monochrome period piece starring the singer as a silver-tongued serial seducer trying to steal the heart, and fortune, of heiress Kristin Scott Thomas on the French Riviera. A hammy attempt at screwball rom-com, the film is a woeful mess, but the silky cinematography of frequent Scorsese collaborator Michael Ballhaus (who also co-directed, uncredited) and the sumptuous sets by Oscar-winning production designer Richard Sylbert help elevate it to deluxe sensual treat. The accompanying soundtrack album, Parade, also was a primetime Prince classic.

Prince next slipped behind the camera for Sign o’ the Times (1987), shot on the European leg of his 1987 world tour. It stands up now as a solid visual record of a great album and lavish live show, punctuated with dramatic vignettes of sexual intrigue and seedy late-night glamour. But Prince’s auteur aspirations finally hit a brick wall when he wrote, directed and starred in Graffiti Bridge (1990), the ill-advised sequel to Purple Rain. Recycling the bitter musical rivalry plot from its predecessor, this uninspired vanity project was laughed out of theaters. But once again, as with most of Prince’s worst ideas, it remains a guilty pleasure, boasting a fine soundtrack album and sumptuous visuals courtesy of cinematographer Bill Butler, who earned his stripes working with Coppola and Spielberg.

But nobody should look to Prince's slender filmography to see the essence of his visual genius. A shape-shifting showman who could have been custom-made for the image-driven MTV era, his catalog of music video clips rank among the best of the '80s, rivaled only by Madonna and Michael Jackson. Playing to his strengths as a live performer and magnetic presence, many of them have the feel of compressed mini-movies, full of salacious sizzle and old-school Hollywood mystique.

In his videos, Prince could be a chic minimalist, as in "Kiss," with its bare-torso dance sequence and ultra-crisp haute-couture look. Or he could be an opulent maximalist, as in "Cream," which opens with a zoot-suited train-station crowd scene before blossoming into a widescreen Busby Berkeley-style musical number. But my personal favorite remains "Alphabet Street," a joyously simple and spontaneous clip filmed at late notice one night in Minneapolis, then splashed with Day-Glo computer graphics, including a subversive half-buried plea from Prince about a shelved musical project he was keen to forget: “Don’t Buy the Black Album, I’m Sorry.” Besides being funky and filthy, Prince could be surprisingly funny.

He certainly showed his comic side with his musical cameo on The Muppet Show in 1997, where the Purple One gamely performed a jokey version of "Starfish and Coffee" from his Sign o’ the Times album, ostensibly to prove he could write a song about anything. Even surrounded by puppets, with a heavy dose of self-parody, Prince still managed to look effortlessly cool.

But not quite as cool as his Superbowl halftime show in Miami 10 years later, in February 2007. Under a drenching downpour, rain-slicked but defiant in an electric blue suit, Prince tore through a high-voltage medley of his own songs woven with audacious quotes from Bob Dylan, Queen, Foo Fighters and more. His grand finale of "Purple Rain," played behind a huge billowing screen, produced a shadow effect that some commentators condemned as shockingly phallic. It was brilliant television, the greatest live performer of his generation playing to over 90 million viewers, effortlessly compressing 40 years of rock history into eight minutes while prudish critics obsessed about his penis. Pure genius, musically and visually. Remember him this way.

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