by Brian Theiss
We’re all crushed by the death of Prince, a human embodiment of musical excellence who smashed through boundaries of race, gender and genre as he created some of the best and most original popular music of the last four decades. But since we’re Scarecrow Video we want to take a minute to acknowledge his work in film.
First and foremost, of course, is Purple Rain (1984), a semi-autobiographical story of Prince’s troubled family life and rise as a musician in Minneapolis dance clubs. Like some of the films of The Beatles and Elvis Presley it’s a perfect cinematic document of the young man right at the moment of exploding into rock god-dom. It’s easy to forget that many of his most iconic songs (“Purple Rain,” “When Doves Cry,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” etc.) were just made as a soundtrack album. He’s playing a struggling musician and he’s debuting some of the greatest songs of the ’80s in a small club. And much of the soundtrack was really recorded live in that club.
Though it didn’t exactly launch him into a new career as an actor, Prince gave a very natural performance as a troubled young man who finds himself inheriting some of his father’s abusive traits. He goes to darker and more ambiguous places than you’d expect in a rock ‘n roll drama like this.
Soon Prince decided to become a director, adapting to the medium surprisingly well with the black and white romance Under the Cherry Moon (1986). It received poor reviews, but is better than its reputation, and is the film debut of Kristin Scott Thomas. He was less successful with Graffiti Bridge (1990), which returns him to his Purple Rain character of “The Kid” and his rivalry with Morris Day and The Time. At least it works as a time capsule of that era of Prince’s music with its appearances by Tevin Campbell, Mavis Staples and George Clinton.
But the best movie in which he’s credited as director would have to be the concert film Sign ‘O the Times (1987). Now recording as Prince instead of Prince and the Revolution (but working with many of the same musicians), he recorded the double LP of the same name, featuring songs like “Housequake,” “U Got the Look” and “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.” When the album didn’t really take off in the U.S. he decided to do a concert film of the new songs. Unhappy with the quality of footage shot at his European tour he filmed most of the movie performing on a soundstage at his Paisley Park Studios. It’s a great performance of great music on an elaborate, cool looking set. Maybe now it’ll come to Blu-ray.
Of course, Prince’s other unforgettable cinematic contribution is his soundtrack to Batman (1989). The idea was forced on director Tim Burton, and is an odd fit, but the singer’s love for Batman’s imagery and themes of duality made for a wonderfully weird concept album. With the dance megamix “Batdance” (not even featured in the movie) he rolled through pieces of various songs from the album and soundbites from the movie, rarely repeating himself and refusing to create a traditional song structure. It was still a smash hit.
In the videos for those songs he plays a half Batman, half Joker character called “Gemini,” appears in a Batcave and leads troupes of dancers in Batman and Joker costumes. Luckily these are all included on the Batman DVD and blu-ray.
Believe it or not, Prince once composed a song for Nick Nolte. James L. Brooks’s 1994 film I’ll Do Anything was originally filmed as a musical, with one of the songs by Prince. After it was savaged by test screening audiences they cut out all the songs. Almost the opposite happened with George Miller’s Happy Feet (2006). The animated jukebox musical includes a scene where Nicole Kidman’s mother penguin sings Prince’s “Kiss.” While they were seeking his permission to change some of the words, the initially skeptical Prince was so impressed by the movie that he went and recorded “Song of the Heart,” which was added to the end credits.
He also made a couple of appearances as himself on television, most recently on a 2014 episode of New Girl. Unfortunately the show Muppets Tonight was never released on video, so his 1997 guest starring role jamming with Pepe the Prawn is not available to us.
Since he was incredibly prolific in the studio for so many years, we are blessed with volume upon volume of great Prince music. But we are also thankful that on occasion his artistic whims compelled him to go in front of or behind the cameras to leave us a visual record of his unique vision. He will be missed.
Brian Theiss is a writer and employee of Scarecrow Video.