Friday, April 22, 2016

cinema obscura: prince's "under the cherry moon" (1986)

The death of Prince brings to mind his misunderstood movie masterwork, "Under the Cherry Moon," released by Warner Bros. in 1986.  At the time, it was as reviled as his 1984 debut film, "Purple Rain," was overpraised.

"Rain" was directed by Albert Magnoli, who would make five other theatrical films, but "Cherry Moon" was directed by Prince himself, who would helm only two other titles - the documentary "Sign 'o' the Times" (1987) and "Graffiti Bridge" (1990). Much like Alfred Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958), Prince's movie largely drew sneers from outraged critics.  But unlike the Hitchcock, "Under the Cherry Moon" has never been sought out for a serious reassessment and undeservedly remains a lost film.

Strikingly photographed in black-&-white by Michael Ballhaus, Prince's movie is part Antonioni, part Hawks, part Warhol, part whatzit - all jumbled together and seemingly influenced also by the mental landscape of its kinetic, eccentric auteur.  Prince's decidedly modernist presence is never quite embraced by his own film's nostalgic Art Deco elements. It's a movie involved in a moody tug-of-war with itself. Which is hugely affecting.

Thirty years later, "Cherry Moon" remains gnawingly elusive, difficult to contain but now has a timelessness. And 30 years later, I still like it. A lot.

The film gets off to a rather curious start with a sequence in which everyone on screen is behaving like a vampire from one of those trendy Andy Warhol/Paul Morrissey horror collaborations from the 1970s.  When bats appear - flying into a cabaret in France, no less - the joke is made clear: This is Prince's "Portrait of the Expatriat as a Young Zombie."

After the bats appear, liberating everyone, "Under the Cherry Moon" settles into what it really is - a stylish romp that could be titled ... "Two Gals in Paris." Only in this case, we get two guys - Prince and sidekick Jerome Benton. Only they're not in Paris, but in Nice, on the Côte d'Azur.

It could have been glib and amoral but instead has a vulnerable charm.

The boys, gigolos hoping to sponge off the jet set and get rich themselves, are shrewd male variations on the characters played by Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Howard Hawks' "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953).

That's right.

Prince is Christopher Tracy, an entertainer who performs nightly in a piano bar and dares to fall in love with a swell (Kristen Scott-Thomas), much to her parents' chagrin, and he plays the part with a mixture of his usual wild-eyed randiness and a certain '50s insouciance.

There's no question in my mind that Prince is doing Monroe here (at times, he affects the same sweet, startled, slightly addled facial expression) or that the speedboat escape at the end smacks of the finale of Billy Wilder's "Some Like It Hot" (1959). This is gender-bending at its most creative.

I've referenced a lot of film titles and filmmakers here and, yes, Prince the director is able to mesh them all.  "Under the Cherry Moon" was a daring risk following the success of "Purple Rain" and in the weeks prior to its release, the buzz labeled it stinker.  Far from it.  It was the boldest film of the summer of 1986.  As well as the most misundersood. Check it out.


Alex said...

Princely review, Joe. Outstanding. Never saw the fillm, never wanted to. Now I do! Thanx.

Kiki said...

Under the Cherry Moon. Wow. I missed it. But apparently, a lot of people also never got the chance. ¿¡ Prince & Kristen Scott Thomas!? I can but imagine.

Charlotte said...

Much like Woody Allen's "Stardust Memories," which I believe was released around the same time, "Under the Cherry Moon" is a unique film, also shot in black-and-white, that was written off as pretentious. I believe that time has caught up with both and both should be re-evalutated.

m.h. said...

Just watched the film! Loved it! Sad that it's lost.

Deni Moore said...

I'm a fan of the old 30's screwball comedies: Bringing Up Baby, My Girl Friday and other old school movies. I think this movie captures the comedy and the zaniness of a bygone era and I, for one, think this movie is excellent. It's campy, indulgent and humorous. Today's generation doesn't get the intellectualism of 30s comedy, but Prince did!