Saturday, August 13, 2016

Graffiti Bridge

(PG-13, Warner Bros. Pictures, 91 mins., theatrical release date: Nov. 2, 1990)

Under the Cherry Moon, Prince's directorial debut from 1986, was a tough movie to evaluate. I can't possibly give the movie any higher than three out of five stars, which is still kinder than anyone who caught it first-run (excepting J. Hoberman). I watched it multiple times in the wake of Prince's passing and struggled to come up with some kind of critical closure. There's a part of me that really admires Prince for playing up both his glamour and humor, as well as championing Jerome Benton, but I felt something close to nothing towards the coupling of Prince and Kristin Scott Thomas. It didn't live up to the standards Prince set as a musician, but I could at least see it as a lark, and it provided more entertainment than I get from most vanity projects.

The term "vanity project" seems like an oxymoron if you watch enough movies in your lifetime. These days, I even take it as given. Aren't all movies "vanity projects" in one way or another? A writer or director clearly has a point-of-view which they are trying to sell a viewer, frivolous or not. It defines the performances, dictates the wide spectrum of aesthetics and is self-important enough to attract financing and marketing to goad someone into a screening. This is how auteur theories start, when you realize a filmmaker is directly selling you his perspective, sometimes often enough that they become themes. To me, it doesn't become damning until a filmmaker's display of ego is devoid of almost all niceties as wit, style, intelligence, empathy, or just plain amusement.

Which brings me to Prince's Graffiti Bridge, his second and final go at movie directing and one in which he branches out to screenwriting. In the wake of Under the Cherry Moon's mass rejection, this was as straightforward a follow-up to Purple Rain as most people wanted from Prince. It's once again centered around musical and romantic competition between a serious artist and a shameless underling, Prince's "The Kid" and Morris Day, Morris Day. The film's soundtrack was again almost single-handedly attributable to Prince. There are return appearances from Jill Jones (this time as a fickle lover who breaks up with The Kid by removing her panties in public), imaginary letters to the father who "took the easy way out" and a ballad-heralding finale ("Still Would Stand All Time"). It would be the safest possible successor to Purple Rain were it not for the existence of Under the Cherry Moon as well as the fact that in 1990, things were much different for Prince in the six years since his cultural dominance.

By order of the Paisley prophet, The Revolution, Prince's backing band, were no more by the end of 1986, as were Morris Day & The Time. Much like Pete Townshend's Lifehouse/Who's Next, an entire concept for an album ("Dream Factory") was abandoned and the resulting song cycle streamlined into what became the brilliant double-LP Sign o' the Times. Prince was ready to throw another curve in the form of The Funk Bible/Black Album, which was infamously recalled a week before release in a drug-induced epiphany of conscience and replaced soon enough with Lovesexy, which The Artist himself considered "a gospel album." But Prince's commercial prospects were diminishing, with lead single "Alphabet St." climbing as high as #8 U.S. in the summer of 1988 and then dropping swiftly. The A-sides to follow ("Glam Slam," "I Wish U Heaven") tanked. Lovesexy eked out mere Gold-certifiable sales by the end of the year.

Prince was falling behind the popular times as 1989 arrived, especially upon the arrival of what was called "new jack swing," a forceful new R&B sound driven by hip-hop technology. Incidentally, it was former Time members Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis who pioneered this sound with Janet Jackson's Control (and later Rhythm Nation 1814), which was taken over the top by genre-defining producer Teddy Riley, particularly through collaborating with Bobby Brown on Don't Be Cruel. Janet and Bobby both made forceful proclamations of independence ("What Have You Done for Me Lately," "My Prerogative") and full-on bangers ("Miss You Much," "Every Little Step") under the new jack swing sound, eclipsing Prince's star in the process.

His rebuttal, as quoted from the opening verse of the first song heard in Graffiti Bridge: "Pardon me for living, but this is my world, too."

This is from the defensive "New Power Generation," one of the few tracks written expressly for Graffiti Bridge and the name of Prince's early 1990s backing group, making their debut here. It's Prince's own "My Prerogative" in sound and attitude, showing that he clearly absorbed the "brand new funk" which he instigated through Minneapolis brethren Jam & Lewis. Issued as the third single of Graffiti Bridge's soundtrack, it trailed in the wake of two more successful predecessors, "Thieves in the Temple" and the Tevin Campbell-sung "Round and Round." These were the other debut compositions Prince wrote, as the remainder of Graffiti Bridge's soundtrack had existed in some form, spanning as far back as 1981's Controversy ("Tick, Tick, Bang") to the aborted "comeback" album for The Time, Corporate World, which, like their past releases, was simply Morris Day singing over Prince's music & lyrics (the actual band wouldn't write/play their own material on record until Corporate World was overhauled to become 1990's Pandemonium).

But Prince's multi-instrumental dominance was already made plain on the evidence of the Purple Rain and Parade soundtracks. Graffiti Bridge is historical in Prince's timeline because it is his one and only filmed screenplay (recall that Purple Rain director Al Magnoli co-wrote it with William Blinn and Under the Cherry Moon was penned by Becky Johnston). Originally written with Madonna in mind in the fall of 1987, the unfortunate star of Shanghai Surprise and Who's That Girl rejected the first draft with outright disgust. After courting Kim Basinger during the Batman blitz, Prince reconfigured the film for Vicki Vale herself, but they separated in early 1990. The shooting script was finalized a month later with a new romantic lead in Ingrid "The Spirit Child" Chavez, Prince's companion/muse for the Lovesexy and co-writer of Madonna's 1991 breathy chart-topper "Justify My Love" opposite Lenny Kravitz, whom Chavez sued for muscling her out of a credit.

More than Prince or Chavez, Graffiti Bridge is perhaps best appreciated as a vehicle for the reassembled original line-up of The Time, Jam & Lewis included. The New Power Generation's B-boy gallery can't help but look anonymous against these flashy funksters, whose sassy party-starters are in direct combat with The Kid's more "spiritual noise." The plot of the movie is your basic bad vs. evil showdown: Morris Day is elevated to Big Boy Caprice-level villainy as owner of the Pandemonium club and shareholder of The Kid's Glam Slam hangout, whose patrons are driven away by the less carnal "Love God" messages in The Kid's jams. As Morris extorts, vandalizes and continually one-ups him, The Kid finds solace in a hard knock seraph named Aura (Chavez) and her equally mystical prolix. "It's just around the corner" is her spectral advice, referring to The Kid's potential for redemption and victory.

Having buried his farcically aggressive Christopher Tracy persona from Under the Cherry Moon, Prince straightens out his curls and stubbles up on his glowering Purple Rain presence. He goes from abnormally charismatic to blankly enigmatic in the process, a narcissistic void best filled with production numbers. Prince gets a couple of great moments, particularly the alleyway gyrations of "Thieves in the Temple" and the desperate lust of "Tick, Tick, Bang," but he serves Morris Day & The Time two annihilators with "Release It" and "Shake" (the latter is not a Sam Cooke cover, but rather the missing link between ? & The Mysterians and The Dust Brothers). The fifth highlight belongs to Tevin Campbell, 13 at the time and previously scouted for Quincy Jones' Back on the Block album. He beat Kris Kross and Another Bad Creation to the punch with a confident delivery of the irresistible "Round and Round" (sadly, Tevin vanishes from the film afterwards). His mom, Melody Cool, played by gospel-soul legend Mavis Staples, finds her own tavern's financial assets coveted by Morris as much as those of the man behind the Clinton Club (guess who!).

With its central conflict involving the owners of four different clubs, Graffiti Bridge lives up to its promise as a musical. The problem is that, compared to the performances in Purple Rain, Prince the director approaches them like generic music videos, complete with rudimentary framing/editing techniques, scads of women dancing in cages (including Robin Power, Morris Day's statuesque girlfriend, who is better flattered in the glow of strobe lights) and egregious lip-synch fails. Despite the combined showman powers of Prince and Morris Day, a majority of their performances tend to fall back on flash at the expense of passion. "Thieves in the Temple" and "Round and Round" prove exceptions by going outside the club milieu, as well as showcasing Prince and Tevin Campbell's respective talents. But as fine as the soundtrack is (even with a lyric like "I'm testing positive for the funk/I'll gladly pee in anybody's cup"), Prince can't get the music to explode off the screen the way Purple Rain did over and over again.

There's also the chemistry problem from Under the Cherry Moon come back to haunt Graffiti Bridge, too. Whereas Kristin Scott Thomas at least proved a game foil for Prince's arrogance, Ingrid Chavez's character is explicitly a plot device, a ponderous pixie as light as the white feather she carries around. Even before the character experiences a clumsily-crafted "noble sacrifice" under the wheels of a runaway Jeep, Aura's attempts to give the movie a New Age gravity is likely to stir cynicism, especially when saddled with Prince's wishy-washy characterization and prattling prose. Put this deficiency next to a one-note Prince performance and the result is more superficial than spiritual.

In all fairness, I do not doubt Prince was genuinely trying to create a soulful but sexy plea for brotherhood and sanctification. And much like Under the Cherry Moon, there are plenty of entertaining moments to be gleaned, especially whenever Morris Day glides onto the screen. He's the callous hotshot elevated to Fool, if you get my drift, fumbling a pose by the Porsche, passing around a jar of hot peppers to test his lackeys' fealty or engaging in a "Dueling Banjos"-scored cash contest with right-hand man Jerome Benton. There's even a gay panic gag which slightly works because of Morris and Jerome's extended bug-eyed awkwardness (only for them to retch the laughter away). These are such crack comic talents, even Kevin Smith can recognize.

But Graffiti Bridge is ultimately Prince's vision, first and foremost, and the flow is treacherous. All of his eccentricities, personality shifts and single-minded visions are aired out in this movie even more than in his two previous vehicles. With its back lot recreation of Minneapolis' Seven Corners and Grease/Can't Stop the Music vet Bill Butler's cinematography, Graffiti Bridge posits a waifish-looking Prince as clubland's Saviour, but it's his boundless gifts as a musician/songwriter rather than his limitations as writer/director/actor that convinces you of such. Thus Graffiti Bridge makes a greater impression as a compilation album than a coherent movie, and once Prince devoted himself full-time to music afterwards, even if it meant crusading against Warner Brothers with "slave" on his cheek, his discography truly became his gospel.

And it is through these equally personal but far more soulful and frisky chapters of Prince's career (yes, that includes Emancipation and The Rainbow Children as well as his post-Musicology public revival) which I best recommend you honor the legacy of Prince. Visit the Tidal store and ride the wave of faith. But seek out Graffiti Bridge at your own peril, for it's enough to test your faith in the existence of angels.

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