'Sign o' the Times':
BY ANTHONY DECURTIS
After the abrupt sinking of Under the Cherry Moon, the movie Sign o' the Times has come along to restore Prince's luster as a formidable big-screen presence. Moreover, along with the double album that shares its name, the film blows away the haze of his last two LPs, Parade and Around the World in a Day, and demonstrates that Prince is still one of rock's most compelling performers and boldest visionaries.
Sign o' the Times is a first-rate concert film that captures Prince and a ten-piece band (including the redoubtable Sheila E. on drums) at the top of their form. The thirteen tunes on the film were culled from concert appearances in Holland and a performance in Prince's Paisley Park studio, in Minneapolis, with a good bit of overdubbing added to juice the sound up even further. Still, all the playing -- especially Prince's blazing excursions on guitar -- is joyous and rich in feeling.
Despite the inherent limitations of concert films, Sign o' the Times is conceptually strong and visually riveting. The musical performances are linked by stylized vignettes that combine street grit and freaky surrealism to dramatize a love triangle including Prince, a male background vocalist and the luciously erotic female singer Cat -- who is aptly summed up at one point in the proceedings as "a sweet, sticky thing." Admittedly, the story line is loose at best. But the theatrical pieces -- which take place on a neon-lit film noir set derived from the hallucinogenic Sign o' the Times album cover -- effectively evoke the interwoven themes of love, lust and spiritual questing embedded in Prince's songs.
After an opening skit that depicts the tension between possessiveness and trust in relationships, Prince stands center stage enveloped in smoke and cranks up a brittle version of "Sign o' the Times." As Prince, deadpan, sings his apocalyptic tale of AIDS, drug abuse and violence, Cat stands enshrouded in mist on a pedestal behind him, echoing his movements in a grim choreography that binds them as soul mates amid the wreckage of modern life. After the band marches onto the stage, each member carrying a drum and rapping out a martial beat to close "Sign," the mood lifts with a swinging version of "Play in the Sunshine." Prince repairs to the piano for a brief rendition of "Little Red Corvette" before tearing up the James Brown hommage "Housequake" with a series of splits, knee bends and twirls.
The next suite of songs constitutes the dramatic heart of the show. Prince and Cat turn in a steamy duet on the soul ballad "Slow Love," and after Cat has a falling-out with her other boyfriend, Prince romps through a horn-charged take on the irresistible "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man." Cat's lubricious writhing prompts Prince to reconsider that position, however, and a burning "Hot Thing" ensues, during which Prince strips Cat down to a yellow bikini and the duo engage in a salacious bump and grind.
Following a lengthy version of Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time" that serves as an instrumental showcase for the band, Prince and Cat exchange fantasy segments. Prince is shown backstage in a reverie that dissolves into the "U Got the Look" video, and then Cat falls asleep to the dream vision of "If I Was Your Girlfriend" that concludes with her and Prince making love as the words LOVE and SEX flash on signs above them. The film's weakest point -- much-too-long versions of "Forever in my Life" and the party raver "It's Gonna Be a Beautiful Night" -- gives way to a rapturous finale: Prince's exquisite rendition of "The Cross."
Unfortunately, although Sign o' the Times is a thoroughly rewarding film, it's ultimate appeal is to the large corps of those already converted to Prince's cause. Prince is arguably the finest live rock act in the world today, and the hard fact is that if he's to reclaim the larger audience he gained with Purple Rain, he must actually tour. Sign o' the Times captures him nicely, but many more people deserve to confront the challenge and the playfulness Prince embodies in the flesh.
ROLLING STONE, DECEMBER 3RD, 1987
3 Stars (out of 4)
By Roger Ebert
Prince labors under the misfortune of having made one of the greatest rock movies of all time, "Purple Rain." Now his career is beginning to take on some of the same hint of nostalgia that dogged Orson Welles all of his days: If you start with "Citizen Kane," where do you go from there? "Purple Rain" contained not only great rock music but also a strong dramatic story and powerful performances by a whole crowd of unknowns. It was a great debut movie, and it made Prince into a sitting duck with whatever film he made next.
His next film was, of course, the disastrous "Under the Cherry Moon," an odd black-and-white exercise that seemed to owe something to old movies by Fred Astaire, Harold Arlen and even Rudy Vallee. He was paying tribute to a tradition that was not even a memory for his fans. Now comes "Sign O' the Times," obviously a more cautious and calculated film, in which Prince returns to his concert roots and tries to give his fans, if not "Purple Rain," then at least what they paid their money for.
This is a concert film, with all of the usual conventions of the modern rock concert film: the towering percussion section, the synchronized backup singers, the sweating superstar in sexual pantomime and, of course, the standard shot of the star leaning forward to tantalize his fans as the first row of the audience surges forward in orgiastic bliss.
To this basic mix Prince has added some adornments. He intercuts the concert footage with what look like glimpses of a dramatic story, in which sex, intrigue and a sense of danger are laid on heavily, although no coherent narrative emerges. These shots symbolize a night world of rock clubs, seedy saloons, hookers and players and johns. They burst out onto the stage in several musical numbers, including one steamy duet between Prince and Cat Glover, rumored to be his current squeeze.
Prince also shares the stage with various visitors, drop-ins and guest stars, notably Sheena Easton. But the person who literally steals the show is Sheila E., who plays percussion and then climbs down from the drums for a solo and a duet. Her energy level in this movie is awesome, and she looks great, too. She can also play drums. Sheila E. says she thinks of herself as a drummer first and a singer second, but on the basis of this movie she could flip a coin.
"Sign O' the Times" was directed by Prince, and he does a good, sound job without finding an answer to the problem of all directors of rock concert films: After you have exhausted the basic repertory of obvious shots and audience reactions, what do you do then? In "Purple Rain," Prince found an answer in his own life, and provided intercuts to an autobiographical story. This time, he lets the music simply speak for itself. It's fun as far as it goes, but "Purple Rain," of course, went further.
Date of publication: 11/20/1987
Sign O' the Times
Cineplex Odeon presents a film starring Prince, Sheila E., Cat Glover, Sheena Easton, Dr. Fink, Miko Weaver, Levi Seacer Jr., Wally Safford, Gregory Allen Brooks, Boni Boyer, Eric Leeds and Atlanta Bliss. Directed by Prince, and produced by Robert Cavallo, Joseph Ruffalo and Steven Fargnoli. Photographed by Peter Sinclair. Edited by Steve Purcell. Music by Prince. Running time: 90 minutes. Classified PG-13. At local theaters.
Published: Friday, November 20, 1987
CONCERT FILM REAFFIRMS
SIGN O' THE TIMES
He's got the look. He's got the moves. He's got the tunes.
And when Prince decides to show them off on the big screen, it's enough to truly keep the party going until 1999.
Because of that, "Sign o' the Times," Prince's third film, may prove to be one of the Minneapolis-based pop star's most important career moves. After hitting pay dirt to the tune of $68.5 million with 1984's "Purple Rain," Prince bombed with last year's "Under the Cherry Moon," raising doubts about his talents as an actor and director.
But there was nothing wrong with him as a musical performer. Face it: Dramatic dialogue wasn't the reason people flocked to see "Purple Rain." What snatched 'em was the concert sequences in which Prince displayed his repertoire of spins, leaps, drops and poses, honed since the late '70s into perhaps the finest live rock act in the world.
THE TURGID "Cherry Moon" had none of that, so Prince has wisely backpedaled with "Sign o' the Times." It's an 85-minute concert film, shot during his European tour earlier this year and overdubbed to perfection in Minneapolis. It's "Purple Rain" without the plot, and it shakes and bakes as well as -- if not better than -- the performance sequences in that movie.
There is, for the record, a bit of a plot here, involving a love triangle between Prince, sexy singer-dancer Cat Glover and backup singer Wally Safford (a Detroit native). Best advice -- ignore it. It only takes away from the music.
And, musically speaking, there's plenty to keep your attention. Performing on a stage set taken from the surrealistic "Sign o' the Times" album cover," Prince and his new 10- piece band play with unmatched fervor, improving on every song from the album. With Glover miming Prince's lyrics, the title track, a grim observation of modern street life, becomes punchier than its vinyl counterpart. As it ends, drummer Sheila E leads the rest of the band onstage, each musician pounding a martial beat on a snare.
From there Prince & Co. gallop through a variety of styles and moods. Prince, at his playful best, dances up a storm during "Housequake" and engages in plenty of sexual interplay with Cat during steamy versions of "Slow Love," "Hot Thing" and "If I Was Your Girlfriend" -- the latter ending with Prince and Glover miming lovemaking as the words "Sex" and "Love" flash in neon behind them.
THE REST of the band gets a chance to step out as well. Saxophonist Eric Leeds leads a rendition of Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time," while keyboardist-singer Boni Boyer wails a counterpoint vocal on "Forever in My Life." Sheila E struts her stuff on "It's Gonna be a Beautiful Night" -- with Prince taking over the drum kit -- and the Purple one takes center stage again to close the film with a sensory-numbing version of "The Cross."
"Sign o' the Times" hardly needs that. Though it's not a breakthrough concert movie in the league of Talking Heads' "Stop Making Sense," it's a well above average outing that should serve three Prince-pleasing purposes: re-establish his big- screen credentials, rejuvenate interest in the "Sign o' the Times" album and whet appetites for a U.S. tour -- which, after seeing this film, can't come too soon.
A Cineplex Odeon Films release. Directed by Prince. Produced by Robert Cavallo, Joseph Ruffalo, Steven Fargnoli. Original songs composed and produced by Prince. Edited by Steve Purcell.
PARENTAL GUIDE: Rated PG-13; profanity, heavy sexual innuendo.
Friday, November 20, 1987
PRINCE'S 'SIGN O' THE TIMES'
By JONATHAN TAKIFF, Daily News Staff Writer
"Sign O' the Times," a concert film starring Prince, with Sheila E., a special guest appearance by Sheena Easton, and introducing Cat. Directed by Simon Fields. Running time: 85 minutes. At area theaters.
Love him or hate him, it doesn't really matter. Just don't try and ignore Prince, the hardest-working man in show business today and to this mind one of the sickest puppies wiggling about on two feet.
Working out in his new concert film, in songs and dramatic vignettes, Prince delights in sending perversely mixed signals. One minute he's waxing idealistically, in a choirboy falsetto, about the joy of innocence ("Play in the Sunshine"). The next sec he's gurgling with unconfined ecstasy about the pleasures of lurid, lingering romance ("Slow Love").
Dressing himself in 1960s love generation accoutrements - wire-rimmed glasses, peace signs, a punk safety pin-defaced military uniform, the sign of the cross - Prince bemoans the corruption of society, carps about people possessed by war, drugs and sex in songs like "Sign O' the Times" and "The Cross."
Prince is very much the devil's advocate - if not the Devil incarnate. He's turned on by woman who look and act like tramps, and enjoys setting up scenarios where male lovers can put their women down, heh, heh.
Prince often plays the part of a slut himself with his vamping eyes and all-knowing grin and slinky, skin-revealing outfits. And when all's said and done, Prince seems most comfortable with the commitment-less role of the backdoor man - in songs like "I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man" or ''If I Was Your Girlfriend."
A psychiatrist could spend a lifetime getting to the roots of this guy's neuroses. Or he could merely compliment Prince for channeling his excesses as the most provocative, all-things-to-all-people sex symbol to hit the pop arena since Elvis Presley.
Ostensibly a concert film, "Sign O' the Times" was recorded at Prince's summer 1987 shows in Holland, with overdubbing and cover shots finished back at Prince's Paisley Park studio in Minneapolis. It features what is basically a new, but very strong band for his Royal Badness, the notable holdover being his sometime squeeze Sheila E., who has re-mixed herself very loudly on drums.
There's also a thin thread of a plot - some nonsense about Prince vying (with a male backup singer) for the affections of a chest-heaving harlot/ dancer named Cat. Their encounters are pantomimed or sung on a multi-level stage setting resembling a Paris street scene.
Even without the excess dramatic baggage that Prince drags along, this would be a compelling piece of work. Like the recent two-record album of the same name, "Sign O' the Times" is a torrid musical tour de force, revealing this wunderkind in a wide variety of musical guises. He pays tribute to James Brown on the funk attacker "Housequake," then aims high as a free-wailing jazz improviser doing up Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time." And he proves the greatest pyschedelic guitar wielder since Jimi Hendrix on umpteen brain- blowing solos.
In the wake of his less-than successful vanity flick "Under the Cherry Moon," Prince's "Sign O' the Times" will certainly redeem the man in his fans' eyes. But as concert films don't play for long, I'd recommend you check it out this weekend, and preferably in a theater with Dolby stereo surround sound.
Parental guide: PG-13.