Thursday, March 7, 2019

UNDER THE CHERRY MOON: Prince's Sophomore Slump

by Adam Thas
A pop icon flies a little too close to the sun.

For F This Movie Fest a few years ago, I wrote a piece about Purple Rain and the impossibility of its success, as well its staying power. Purple Rain should have never gotten made, but Warner Bros took a chance and it turned out beautifully, made Prince a superstar, gave us one of the greatest albums of time, and, most importantly, made a lot of money. So naturally, when Prince walked in and pitched his second movie, they gave it the green light. I know, when I present it the way I just did, it sounds mildly rational. Your cash-cow comes in and says he’s got another idea and you give him another shot, but let’s really look at it as if we’re there in that pitch meeting:

It’s early 1985, you’re sitting at Warner Bros, the door opens and an entire entourage walks in. Between them is Prince. He starts his pitch: it’s modern day in the French Riviera and we follow two playboys,  Chris and Tricky, who have moved from Miami. They want to seduce a young heiress who is about to inherit a $50 million dollar trust fund from her father, but things don’t quite go as planned.
Okay, not the worst idea. You were hoping for Purple Rain 2, but you’re a good employee, so you ask a few questions:

"So Prince, is there going to be an album?"

"Yes, but it’s going to be called Parade and not named after the movie."

"Is anyone from Purple Rain going to be in it?"

"Just Prince and Jerome Benton from The Time."

"Who is directing it?"

"Mary Lambert. She’s never done a movie before, just a few music videos."

"Who is going to play your love interest?"

"Susannah Melvoin. She’s never acted before in her life, but she is my girlfriend."

"Are there going to be any music performances?"

"Not really. A few dance numbers and piano, but nothing too big.

"Okay, is there anything you’d like to add Prince?"

"Yes, it’s going to be in black and white."

"Sounds solid, here is a check for $10 million dollars."

I don’t know what really happened in that pitch meeting, but I’ve got to imagine the feeling came over them like a gambler who just hit jackpot on a million to one odds and decides to go for it again.

Soon into the production, original director Mary Lambert started butting heads with Prince, so he fired her and decided to direct the entire movie himself. In a very smart move, he also fired his girlfriend once it became very obvious she can’t act, and replaced her with Kristin Scott Thomas. After its release, though, it was unsalvageable. The movie was panned and lost the “Worst Movie” Raspberry award to Howard the Duck. It’s pretty universally hated and even Prince’s hardcore fans don’t come out to see it failing at the box office. However, to simply say the movie is bad isn’t looking at exactly what is happening in it.
To understand Under the Cherry Moon, you first have to understand Prince. Now, I don’t claim to know him; in fact, the closest I’ve ever gotten to him was about 50 feet, but I’m also staring at a book on my bookshelf from a photographer who Prince would hire to take random photos of him over 35 years. I’ve heard the stories -- you probably have too -- and even though he is my all time favorite, it’s no secret he was quite an unusual dude and often quite arrogant. He has every right to be; he accomplished more by 25 than most of us will in our lifetime, but his arrogance comes from everything existing to move Prince and his career forward. It’s why Purple Rain exists, and it’s also why Under the Cherry Moon exists.

Prince wants to be a sex symbol, so of course seeing him as a playboy seducing women is what he wants. The entire first half of this movie is building him up and making him sexy. You may have never seen Under the Cherry Moon, but chances are you’ve seen the gif of a black and white, pouty lipped Prince staring at you as the camera zooms in. That’s from Under the Cherry Moon! The entire first quarter of the movie is purposed to make Prince sexy, and it works for a while.

Kristin Scott Thomas and Jerome Benton are great. Out of the few compliments the movie got when it first came out was from Siskel and Ebert, who noted how good Benton was. Jerome Benton made a career out of being a sidekick and does not fail in this instance, honestly outshining Prince in some of their scenes together. But what rarely gets talked about when it comes to the movie is that there are some scenes that Prince directs the shit out of. At one point, Prince puts the camera in the center of a restaurant and, much like Rear Window, spins the camera around slowly in a three-minute continuous take while we get tiny vignettes from each character in the restaurant. For being a first time director, Prince understood things and was able to frame shots and move the story impressively at times.

When you watch Purple Rain, there are, of course, things that have not aged well, like Morris Day throwing a woman in a dumpster, but those things are so few and spaced out that it doesn’t distract from the movie. Unfortunately, Under the Cherry Moon doesn’t avoid these punches. For a movie whose goal was to make Prince “sexy,” it succeeds time and again by accomplishing the opposite. What Prince tries to pass off as humor just makes him look like a dick. There are several scenes in the movie where Prince isn’t just off-putting and cruel with things he says or does to other characters. At one point, after ditching his best friend and seducing Mary, he proceeds to berate her in the back of a convertible by calling her names, to which she rewards him by having sex with him. Most of all though, Prince comes off as very...rapey. I don’t know if it’s my own personal preference or if it’s just looking at the movie from a 2019 point of view, but he’s very forceful and un-sexy for a man who made a career of making thoughtful songs about women and being sexy.
Under the Cherry Moon has a reputation for being terrible and it’s not. There are things to like and there are some bold choices that work in Prince’s favor. On paper, a black and white movie doesn’t seem like a good choice, but I think the movie is better for it. The soundtrack is great, but doesn’t fit as well as it could. Where Under the Cherry Moon is at its most interesting, though, is as a vanity project: the portrait of a young musician who made a successful first movie but whose overconfidence destined the second to failure. If anything, Under the Cherry Moon is an example of what happens when you try to catch lighting in a bottle a second time. Purple Rain should have never been as successful as it was. Under the Cherry Moon shouldn’t have been a success either. Unfortunately for Prince, it wasn’t.

1 comment:

  1. I went to see this theatrically at the time. I remember liking and defending it. I don't remember anything from the movie though. except the music. time for a rewatch!