“I do nothing professionally. I do everything for fun.” –Christopher Tracy, played by Prince, in Under the Cherry Moon
Sometimes it Snows in April.
Baby, I’m a Star!
Purple Rain 2.
Would any of these titles have made Under the Cherry Moon any better or worse? It’s a legitimate question. Maybe it sounds like a joke, but Prince kind of got away with this thing, and he’s probably still laughing about it in heaven.
In a way, this is a strange remix – black-and-white Prince on the prowl struggling to find legitimacy in a world that doesn’t understand. But here we are, with Under the Cherry Moon, Prince’s follow-up to his wildly successful Purple Rain, showing Prince as a lusty young stud learning to love. And while that may sound different from Rain, Prince’s moves were all the same. The boyish banter. The lean, petite frame. The hyper-sexual body language. That stare. That hair. That lip biting, oh how he dared! The only difference was that, with his second feature, Prince had all the confidence and creative control to be as bad as he wanted to be, and he coated his quintessence in pristine cinematography and glittery costumes that would make Edith Head gasp. It’s as if Prince was an artist-director who knew exactly what audiences and fans might demand of him or something. Why do you think there are a fortune of GIFs from this film online?
And what a shame that the film flopped. But time’s been fair to Prince’s directorial debut, and even kinder to the movie’s dazzling soundtrack, Parade. Under the Cherry Moon turns 30 this week, and it’s time to kick back to Prince’s cult classic of Gigolos and Vogue magazine visuals. Best remembered in bits and pieces, elevated by Prince’s musical marksmanship, here’s a film that unexpectedly endures. For any regular film nut, this thing’s easy to ignore, but for any Prince completist or filmgoer with the patience for re-appraisal, here’s a fascinating work of ego that’s best remembered as both star power parading around like highfalutin art and an outsider’s anthem to being freaky when the squares only invited other squares to the big parties. Prince is the Romeo audiences never knew they wanted. And vanity was always one of Prince’s most noticeable sins, anyway.
Prince’s debut feature as a director has long been mired as commercial meandering. “Just let the little Nelson do another one,” Warner head honcho Terry Semel might have said at the time. Who today could be bothered to recall the uh, “narrative,” of Under the Cherry Moon? A supreme love machine trying to go straight is about as thrilling and self-aware as a Minnesota boy struggling with his own greatness. But Prince has never been one for subtlety, for bland themes. And besides, the symbol himself made a damn movie (after taking it away from a director, but more on that later). Everyone behold Prince’s, or rather Christopher Tracy’s, Parade.
Prince rode the success of Purple Rain right into Under the Cherry Moon. The new position: Prince was a sexy, fancy lad, gifted in song and dance and instrumentation (not a stretch at all), by the name of Christopher Tracy. He’s a Parisian paramour, wiggling along the sun-soaked loveliness of a Nice out of time. Prince is both ‘30s-‘40s old Hollywood chic and proud mid-‘80s black man, followed by his effeminate, debonair brother, Tricky (Jerome Benton). But everything you need in its purest form comes from the opening moments of Under the Cherry Moon.
From the get-go, you know this Christopher Tracy is a smooth operator. The opening credits are like a sexy riff on the smoky rooms and smokier music of Casablanca, as a vamping Prince is framed with direct light over his eyes – one of his best and most (over-) expressive features. It feels classic. “Starring Prince” appears. No kidding. He dons beads on top of his head, and he’s pulling it off. Tracy is informed by Tricky that a woman across from him has the hots, and Tracy’s ready to warm her up and cool her down. Tracy lays it on thick, wobbling his head, but keeping his gorgeous eyes on his mark, as he plays the keys like a far more aggressive Liberace. The non-diegetic music builds around him, creating a sexually sonic metaphor for his finger strokes. Tricky passes Tracy note after note, egging Tracy on as the credits roll below Prince’s enigmatic mug. And then, ecstasy. Tracy wakes up next to the lady, leaves her satisfied, and bam, Prince’s “Christopher Tracy’s Parade” starts pounding atop the sound mix like a blast of giddy, dirty bliss. Birds fly euphemistically atop Nice as we settle in for Prince’s lavish, luxurious ride. Joyous and delirious. As a viewer, we can’t help but feel seduced by the tricks of Tracy’s trade and Prince’s subsequent craft.
Good lord, the ego on Prince. Yet somehow, the opening works and sets a tone.
And Under the Cherry Moon plays like that in different keys for another hour and a half. Tracy’s a womanizer, a bum, and arguably likeable due solely to the fact that he’s Prince. Sometimes he’s goofy, smirking at kids and telling them to go get jobs. Sometimes he’s just embarrassing, stealing apples and cracking bad jokes (“Maybe if you loosen your chastity belt, you could breathe a little mo’ betta!” is an especially antiquated way to flirt). Tracy hypnotizes a lady in the elevator with his “Bela Lugosi” eyes. Tracy proclaims fearlessness in haughty fashion, only to scream and cry at the sight of a bat (ah, Prince’s brand of comedy). Prince even dabbles in bisexual teasing and hokey patter with Tricky, giving off the vibe. One Prince fits all, without compromise. The film is less about the socioeconomic despotism and swirly struggles of Rain. That success afforded Prince more time to play. Under the Cherry Moon’s an eclectic fantasy wrapped around the finger of Prince, calling the shots from within what we can only assume were fashionable garbs (Bonucci and Reminiscence, to be exact).
Tracy’s ready to hang his hat and fall in love with the wealthy, young woman Mary Sharon (Kristen Scott Thomas in her debut role). Tracy squares off with ‘80s big bad Stephen Berkoff (Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop), Mary’s wicked stepfather. Tracy uses everything in his book to get Mary’s attention – purring like a kitten on her couch, putting her down and teasing her, busting out into song, eating her whole face in amusing attempts at kissing. Tracy finds true love, and oh brother is it ever clichéd. As an actor, Prince pouts, sulks, licks his lips with the same lingering stares and eroticism he teased in Purple Rain. Basically, the Chappelle skit didn’t lie.
But here’s the thing: Prince directs the hell out of this film. The film has cute cuts (a woman’s scream mixes into Prince making u-boat dive sounds in his bathtub). Prince keeps the camera on him in deliciously unexpected ways (originally shot in color, Prince’s best move was converting the film to B&W in post). And he even ventures into the surreal when a scene calls for it – glowing, ethereal doorways interrupting reality, dances in the sky, and so on. The whole project somehow reads as total auteurism, aesthetic and auditory control, and he presents his morality and will to try things differently as long as it’s his way. This film is the culmination of Prince’s primary interests, sex and fun. Yes, Tracy’s about as childish as “The Kid” in Rain, and the film’s certainly a stitched series of musical interludes, but what a grand music video it all turns out to be. Like Prince’s music, perhaps this film is best taken in for its sensation and not its literal output. That, and the dialogue is just ridiculous.
But Prince looks cool, owns his story’s loose ideology of churlish change, and stages some marvelously ornate shots. Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus (with an uncredited directing role), of Fassbinder and Scorsese fame, gave Prince clean craftsmanship in every shot. The staging and mystique of a stuffy party where Mary flashes her birthday suit and chic partiers grow bored almost plays as a pre-cursor to David Fincher’s “Vogue” video for Madonna. Ballhaus and Prince’s high-contrast aesthetic begs comparison even to the filmmaker’s “Freedom 90” video.
Parade, the accompanying soundtrack, came out several months before Under the Cherry Moon and featured such hits as “Kiss”, “Do U Lie”, and a whole world of new sounds. The opening guitar wobble and promising grunt of the classic love plea “Kiss”. The pouncing drum rattle of “Christopher Tracy’s Parade”. The sweet, serene melancholia of “Sometimes It Snows in April”. The music is like glue, binding Prince’s erratic scenes. And each song, while tacked on over scenes, elevates the material in a curious way. Why can’t a conga line break out to the tune of “New Position”? The willpower of Prince! It’s certainly more exciting than static shots and Prince displaying a lack of confidence. So thank you, Under the Cherry Moon, for inspiring those sounds.
Prince only directed two films, and his second effort was four years after Cherry Moon with 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, a pseudo-sequel to Purple Rain about warring bands (again). Under the Cherry Moon feels like a calling card. His interests in vintage commercial art mixed with his predilections for the funky and hypersexual are here. This film’s like getting a glimpse at Prince’s brain, scattered but at least to a breathtaking degree. His interests seem to be in his poised allure, his love of old fashion, and his unflappable hard-on for true love. As far as debuts go, not many directors would dare to let it all out like this.
Alas, Under the Cherry Moon is a film that was beaten till purple by critics and audiences in 1986. Owen Gleiberman at Entertainment Weekly slammed Prince’s “mock-effeminate vamping,” not to mention the musical auteur’s “outfits that would have humbled Liberace.” On Prince’s direction, Peter Travers, then at People, stated that “even Elvis never got so carried away with himself that he thought he could direct.” Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune just called it an “absurdly bad movie.” The film landed at #72 in the year’s box office round-up with a puny $10 million in returns; for comparison, Purple Rain sat at #11 with $68 million in 1984. And most achingly, Under the Cherry Moon received five Golden Raspberries, including ones for Worst Picture (tied with Howard the Duck) and Worst Song (for “Love or Money”, which is just plain rude). Why’d they wanna hurt Prince so bad?
Prince was on the top of the world in 1986. With countless plaudits to back him up, he had absolute power and a once-strong relationship with the Warner Corporation. Sad but true: Mary Lambert, who’d go on to direct ‘80s classics like Pet Semetary and Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video, was set up to direct, but disagreed with Prince over the direction. Details alas, are vague. “Creative differences” is the phrase used in several outlets, but one could reasonably guess (if there’s any salt to that Kevin Smith monologue about Prince) that Prince wanted things his way. Naturally, the star won. While there’s totally a Directors’ Guild suit waiting to happen in there, perhaps it was better that Prince got his chance to step up to the plate – it’s not like he got many chances after this. And Prince was passionately himself, weird and wonderful.
Looking at Under the Cherry Moon, especially after Prince’s passing, the film holds up better than expected as a farcical pastiche, and the parting sensation is an unexpected longing for more. A surprising melancholy. Some thinkers have even come around to the film’s better qualities, albeit with concessions.
Perhaps it’s in response to Prince’s recent passing, but the final 10 minutes plays far more sensationally and mournfully than one might recall. Apologies for spoiling a 30-year-old film, but Christopher Tracy is killed in brutal fashion, cut short from making good on his lover’s getaway with Mary Sharon. Sure, the melodrama could be characterized as “over-dramatic” in these final moments, but Prince commits to his grand design. Perhaps it’s selfish self-sacrifice, a messianic complex, or Prince cheating emotional depth, but staged in his B&W fantasy world, the composition of his death dares to look a bit like the famous finale of Reed’s The Third Man. This scene is hugely filmic and impressively directed. Is the emotional intensity undercut by Tracy’s dandy bad-boydom? Sure. Is Prince still capable of delivering a scene with flair and some degree of aesthetic heft? Most definitely.
But then the beat goes on. In heaven, or at least Prince’s music video conception of cloud song land. Maybe this is a clunky reading brought on by optimistic mourning, but one could hope and imagine that this is what Prince’s final reward looks like. Prince sings and swings to the tune of “Mountains”, shaking maracas under his Spanish hat and ab-less bull fighter’s shirt in the sky. The Revolution, for reasons unknown, are there too. (Just go with it.)
Find this film, and enjoy the fleeting moments of impish bad behavior and overt romance with Prince one more time. Sure, Christopher Tracy may have been a hood, but you try not swooning to “Kiss”. The Symbol made a movie, and Under the Cherry Moon may be unrefined, but it’s certainly bold and seldom uneventful. It may not always be beautiful, but it’ll still turn you on.