Special to the Robertson Treatment by the members of AAFCA
*Most people who point to Prince’s film career go straight to “Purple Rain.” And rightfully so. Released July 27, 1984, the loosely autobiographical film starring Prince as The Kid trying to overcome an upbringing marked by domestic violence as he strives to make his mark in music was certainly a career milestone and lifelong highlight. Made for $7 million, Purple Rain grossed over $68 million domestically.
At the time, Prince’s music was popular and he had enjoyed relative success but he had not yet become a superstar; Purple Rain changed that. The accompanying soundtrack, also titled Purple Rain, sold over 13 million copies in just the U.S. and spent 24 weeks at the top of the Billboard 200. “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” both reached No. 1 on the Billboard 100, with “Purple Rain” hitting No. 2. Prince achieved the remarkable feat of simultaneously having the No.1 album, single and film in the country. He also won an Oscar for Best Original Song Score and two Grammys for Purple Rain.
Although Prince was far from the first artist to merge music with film, he did signal a new era. His songs may have already painted emotional pictures but he took it a step further by meticulously matching stunning visuals with them. In Purple Rain he created an aesthetic that songs alone could not communicate. Through costuming and staging, he challenged stereotypes based on race and gender and invited his audience to reevaluate their preconceived notions about sexuality. Prince forced his audience to reconsider what a straight man looked like. He established that a man could be artsy and heterosexual, even as society told him that he had to present himself a certain way.
Although Prince was himself athletic, as evidenced by his energetic and physically grueling performances, he rejected athleticism as the only prerequisite for manhood. His long curly hair and penchant for eyeliner, as well as flamboyant dress, ruffled shirts, some would say blouses, carved out a new narrative. He also changed what was acceptable behavior for a Black man. It was okay for him to ride a motorcycle as his only mode of transportation while freely toting his guitar. In the end, he still got the girl. But, most importantly, he got himself.
With Purple Rain, Prince answered a call for diversity that Hollywood had not issued. Leading ladies didn’t look like Apollonia. Even though Rae Dawn Chong was beginning her run, she was not the bombshell Apollonia. It is not that Hollywood didn’t have women who looked like Apollonia in films; it’s how they were in the film. Here she was the main object of desire. But Purple Rain did more than present Apollonia as a sex symbol, it also was a rare film in which all the main characters were of color. Hollywood was discovering this dynamic in the emerging hip-hop films like Beat Street it began embracing, but Purple Rain was pop; it was the new rock-n-roll. In other words, it was uncharted territory for actors of color.
Prince continued these societal, cultural and racial critiques with his second film Under the Cherry Moon, his first as a director. While it may have failed financially and critically at the time, it scored visually as well as thematically. And as time has passed, many have started reassessing the film and finding that it was indeed another bold statement from Prince. How many films set and actually shot in the French Riviera starred a Black man then or even star a Black man now? With 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon,Prince inserted himself and Black men as a whole in places where society insisted he nor his kind belong. The fact that Prince shot Under the Cherry Moon in black and white is no coincidence. In an actual 1930s era film, a Black man dressed like Prince’s Christopher Tracy would most likely be a butler or performing usually for whites only. Therefore it is key that, unlike Purple Rain, this is not a film where Prince performed throughout. In many ways, he used Under the Cherry Moon to correct, or at least, challenge Hollywood’s stereotype and that of American society at large of where Black men, in particular, belonged.
His 1987 concert film Sign o’ the Times wasn’t a blockbuster film either. But, like a lot of things Prince, has found an afterlife. Today it is hailed as an important concert film, but, at the time, it was dismissed. Perhaps there is little redemption for Graffiti Bridge, a Purple Rain sequel released in 1990, but, as with everything he did, even it left a visual impression and still does. The video for “Thieves in the Temple” off the soundtrack still awes today. The use of color as well as the tease of shadow and light, not to mention Prince’s gender-bending ensemble, even today, over 20 years later, still makes a statement.
Prince may not have shined on the big screen the way that he did with a guitar in his hand but he never stopped sharing his visual brilliance with the world. His many videos remain among the best ever made. They excite and delight. They tell a story. Perhaps his talent in this arena was more suited to a shorter form but he was never afraid to challenge himself to find out.
Musically he never dropped off. According to IMDB, he has 166 soundtrack film and TV credits. He won a Golden Globe for his music in the animated film Happy Feet. And, of course, his soundtrack for Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989 is one of the most celebrated of the genre. Few can forget the “Batdance” video where Prince played on the Batman and Jokers theme well. Somehow it reflected the film and also stood on its own.
And that surmises Prince’s career: on the big and small screen, he reflected the times but also stood alone and sometimes raced ahead of them.
The African American Film Critics Association represents the leading black film critics in the world. Visit: www.aafca.com
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