Friday, August 12, 2016

Under the Cherry Moon

(PG-13, Warner Bros. Pictures, 98 mins., theatrical release date: July 2, 1986)

The year is 1986: The Golden Raspberry Awards, in its seventh year of existence since a group of armchair critics declared Can't Stop the Music to be the nadir of 1980, has tabulated its first tie vote. This ceremony, which has since persisted in piggybacking off the Oscars but has proven just as inconsequential as the Golden Globes, seemed to take one good look at the turkey gallery of 1986 and couldn't settle on one "winner." Given how most objective critics at least have a single solitary movie per year to decree their least favorite viewing experience, it seems dodgy that the GRAs would call a draw.

Which one...I mean, two of the year's worst would go neck-and-neck? There were tempting choices, to say the least. Blue City, for instance, was the nail in the coffin for the so-called Brat Pack by virtue of casting Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson in their most badly-received dual vehicle, although time has not been as kind to St. Elmo's Fire as the Razzie committee was in '85. Why Schumacher & Kurlander weren't creamed with a "Worst Screenplay" nod, I'll never understand.

Maybe Sylvester Stallone, whose Rambo and Rocky sequels were easy Razzie targets the previous year, would come away the victor for the deserving Cobra, an inept attempt at turning the Italian Stallion into the new Dirty Harry from the producers of non-nominee The Apple?

Or what about the dreaded Shanghai Surprise, which was every bit as bad as its reputation when I finally wrote about it?

Hell, maybe John B. Wilson would prank us and spring a dark horse winner? Maximum Overdrive? American Anthem? King Kong Lives? Tai-Pan?

Nope, 1986 was another fish-in-a-barrel year for the Razzies as they unanimously declared both Howard the Duck and Under the Cherry Moon the Worst Movies of 1986. Dino De Laurentiis, you lose again.

But why these two instead of one or the other? Or for that matter, Shanghai Surprise, which unlike Howard the Duck or Under the Cherry Moon has not developed a contrarian cult following and remains as adamantly disliked now as it was then. If it's a question of ego, then George Lucas and Prince would seem small potatoes compared to the combination of Sean Penn and Madonna.

In a word: publicity. The Raspberry committee was well aware of the poor receptions of both in all the various trades and papers, ubiquitous in their flopdom. These were the safest possible bets, and even an institute like the Raspberries took the bait unquestioningly.

The strangest thing about Howard the Duck since its release is that the film has actually been embraced in some horribly nostalgic way. I can't say I have a mental list of the three worst movies I'd single out in 1986, but rest assured that I probably would count Howard the Duck as one of my finalists. It was an affront to the legacy of Steve Gerber's scabrous Marvel comics, a colossal plummet from the brain trusts responsible for American Graffiti and a sad career point for all three principal actors. It was to Lea Thompson what Dirty Grandpa is for her daughter, Zoey Deutch. It was even more regrettable for Tim Robbins than Fraternity Vacation. And though Jeffrey Jones' disgrace as a sex offender remains fresh in my mind, could it be any less queasy-making than the botched interspecies romance between Beverly and Howard?

And Thomas Dolby's soundtrack was clearly a rip-off of what Prince had been doing to perfection ever since 1980.

The news of the passing of Prince Rogers Nelson has left a hole in my heart, to say the least. Of all the 1980s pop icons, from Michael to Cyndi to Madonna and (perhaps) Phil Collins, none of them were ever as consistent as The Artist Forever Known as Prince. From the moment he dressed himself down to a trench coat and bikini briefs on the cover of his Dirty Mind LP at the start of the decade, to the musique-concrete funk of his surprise chart-topper "Batdance," Prince satisfied some major sonic rumbles at the height of his fame. He did so-called "new wave" better with his brazen kinkiness, cross-pollinated genres with the precision of a true wunderkind and always kept people stymied at the growth he demonstrated from one project to another, even when the results were maddening.

Yet in 1986, Prince swept the Golden Raspberries with Worst Actor, Worst Director, Worst Original Song, and a joint Worst Picture for Under the Cherry Moon. Jerome Benton, who survived The Time to be with Prince's Revolution band, emerged scathed with Worst Supporting Actor. Newcomer Kristin Scott Thomas and screenwriter Becky Johnston must have narrowly avoided their respective nominations. In short, all the goodwill Prince gained with Purple Rain came crashing down in a rubble of hubris and gross miscalculation.

But the death of Prince has led me to evaluate both his narrative-based feature directorial efforts, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge. I carry a monumental reverence and sadness as I go, well aware of Prince's many notorieties and boundless talents. I can declare to the world (or at least those reading this) that there will never be another Prince in our future, no matter how hard Justin Timberlake, Kanye West or others may try. Even though my primary interest is film, I can listen to Prince's records, especially Sign o' the Times, and hear a genius in every groove.

As for the movie, it...doesn't quite suck like many have said. I'd watch Under the Cherry Moon over Howard the Duck or Shanghai Surprise or Cobra every time. The real dilemma is how much of my enjoyment is from vicarious train wreck fascination or simple allegiance to Prince.

Based on the massive cross-promotional popularity of Purple Rain, Prince decided to switch things up several notches cinematically as well as musically. His subsequent LP, 1985's Around the World in a Day, flirted with Beatles-era psychedelic textures and string arrangements. Legend has it that Prince was incubating this sound in his head even before the blockbuster soundtrack to Purple Rain made the rounds. Furthermore, the impetus was a demo tape cut by Wendy Melvoin & Lisa Coleman, paralleling the friction on screen in the movie. That follow-up's "The Ladder" even included a co-writing credit for the real-life paterfamilias John Nelson, who came out to support his estranged son by this time.

Despite Prince's resistance to established promotional means like pre-release singles, concert tours and promo videos, Around the World in a Day spawned a couple of hits, by turns randy ("Raspberry Beret") and skeptical ("Pop Life"), not to mention fan favorites like "Paisley Park" (the name of Prince's distribution label) and "Condition of the Heart." But the teller is the closing track, an eight-minute grind called "Temptation" which morphs from burlesque to damnation in as wild a manner as only Prince can concoct. Imagine "Automatic" from 1999 interjected with the pitch-shifted voice of God which opened that album:

"Oh, silly man. That's not how it works. U have 2 want it for the right reasons."
"I do."
"U don't, now die!"

This beginning to see the light ("Love is more important than sex. Now I understand") is baked into the courtship plot of Under the Cherry Moon, as Prince was set off on the great thematic push-pull dynamic which would be blown four sides open with Sign o' the Times. His Royal Badness still dressed in flamboyantly sexy ways and celebrated being "in the mood for drawers," but the time had come for making soul connections. Thus Christopher Tracy, Prince's alter ego, ends up compromising his gigolo ways for deeper courtship of 21-year-old heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Christopher Tracy, not just the pseudonym Prince was credited as on The Bangles' "Manic Monday," is a piano-plinking lothario who sets his lascivious sights on the unsatisfied debutantes of the French Riviera. Flanked by his fellow Miami émigré Tricky (Jerome Benton), Tracy catches wind of the ultimate grift in the figure of Mary, a prim but not-completely-repressed society child worth $50 million. He crashes Mary's birthday gala with seduction in his eyes and dollar signs on his mind, but in patented princess vs. pauper screwball fashion, Tracy antagonizes himself to her immediately. Tracy and Mary will inevitably make up/out in the manner Prince sang about in the pursed-lipped hit single which inaugurated the film, but not without reprisal from her powerful papa Isaac (Steven Berkoff).

Aside from evoking tradition in Becky Johnston's script, where class and gender conflicts are compressed into snappy repartee, Under the Cherry Moon was beget with the kind of production troubles which doom vanity projects from the word "go." Kristin Scott Thomas was scouted in the waning days of pre-production after Madonna and Susannah Melvoin fell through, whereas Terence Stamp quit two weeks into filming and was replaced by Mr. Berkoff. The black-and-white photography was conceived after filming, thus going further against the expectations set by Purple Rain. Perhaps most controversial was the decision to jettison Mary Lambert, who directed the retro-minded video for Madonna's "Material Girl" amongst a couple of her other MTV staples ("Borderline," "Like a Virgin"), and demote her to "creative consultant."

Whatever the sordid details of his ultimate control over the project, at least Prince had some of his work cut out for him. German DP Michael Ballhaus, who would become a regular collaborator of Martin Scorsese's from After Hours to The Departed, makes a paradise of Nice and displays plenty of fluid compositions which make more sense monochromatically. Esteemed production designer Richard Sylbert and returning costume designer Marie France also excel in their contributions to the candle-lit grottos and outré fashions, giving Prince a convincing Valentino-style makeover (it's a better tribute to the idol than Bolero, for damn sure) and fitting Thomas in sparkling flapper wear. And the background score of Prince & The Revolution originals, released as Parade, is a four-star assemblage of stylistic detours swirling in rococo minimalism ("Do U Lie," "Venus de Milo") and transcendent permutations of Prince's finger-snapping pop-funk ("Girls & Boys," "Kiss," "Christopher Tracy's Parade"). By the time it wraps up with the eulogy "Sometimes It Snows in April," even the more ordinary moments ("Life Can Be So Nice," "Anotherloverholenyohead") can be accepted on their own terms.

Alas, Parade remains a tight 41 minutes long whereas Under the Cherry Moon lasts 100 minutes in a journey not as wholly rewarding. To be clear, it is not because Prince moulds it into the opposite of Purple Rain, cutting way back on the musical numbers (the only performance piece, "Girls & Boys," is rendered diegetic through use of a boom box; everything else is laid over) and pushing harder towards goofy comedy as opposed to the gloomy melodramas which dogged The Kid. This is a Bugs Bunny-style cartoon of himself rather than a diminutive Jimmy Dean, and Prince camps it up with gusto whether making "Bela Lugosi eyes" at his landlady or poking at the racial dissimilarities between him and Tricky ("Butterscotch...chocolate"). Jerome Benton is equally refreshing in a more substantial comedic role than as Morris Day's mirror-toting foil ("I'm my own man, just like Liberace!"). And Mary's first lesson in Ebonics ("wrecka stow," which kinda sounds French) is rightly embraced as a show-stopper. 

Purple Rain was tailor-made for Prince's magnetism as a stage performer. There's a reason why the movie ends with three back-to-back songs, benediction demanding an encore. It would seem wise that Under the Cherry Moon instead highlight his boisterous, subversively frisky persona, the kind which appalled AOR-damaged sheep, censorious senators' wives and fuddy-duddy film scribes ("Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?" and "Don't you wanna play?"). Though Tricky later acts as a mouthpiece for divine union, he's dressed up in the same button-studded ensemble Prince used to promote "Kiss."

Prince radiates challenging such sex appeal, and Kristin Scott Thomas puts up an ample fight against Tracy's irritating disarmament whilst looking just as attractive. Which brings me to the one flaw which ultimately undoes Prince's amnesty as an actor: Christopher Tracy and Mary Sharon hardly make an impression as a romantic couple. Yes, we see them make passes over the telephone. They frolic along the beach and make goo-goo eyes at each other. They engage in heavy petting in a payphone. But Prince's direction and Johnston's script never convincingly thaws out either party's defensive personalities to really attain the romantic union Prince seeks as an alternative to lust.

Just like the last time an 80s pop idol tried to anchor a modernized screwball comedy, I must decree that Under the Cherry Moon is no The Sure Thing.

Mary is presented as a carefree soul who casually flashes spectators at her birthday party [side note: one of Mary's friends is played by Pamela Ludwig, a favorite of teen drama specialist Tim Hunter, known for the classics Over the Edge and Tex] and plays drums impromptu. At first, her relatable animosity towards Tracy is equal parts class contempt and mistrust over his intentions. The movie should progress with her desires for love and independence opening her up to Tracy's idea of "fun" and making her less brittle, but it never happens. She stands up for herself in a compelling diatribe to her mother late in the game, but Mary remains a klutzy mix of virginal cipher and upper-crust cookie.

And then there's Prince.

I'm not a big fan of the Pet Sematary movies, and trading in one pop video director for another probably wouldn't mean a wide gulf in quality. But speaking as a cineaste, I think the best director for Prince was virtually anyone but himself. There comes a point when Tracy should tone it down, just as much as Mary, but again, nothing of the sort. This spells disaster for the chemistry between Prince and Thomas, as the one convincing moment of emotional growth is a poem read off screen ("An Honest Man") as Mary lies alone in the grotto. Prince may have been sincere in his studied allusions to Golden Age opposites-attract movies from America and Europe, but here the will is hardly as strong as the flesh.

Which is a shame, because Prince is gracious enough even at his most overheated to allow his fellow performers moments to bare their talent, most beneficially Jerome Benton. When Tracy and Tricky debate their seduction and business rivalries, Benton is endearingly cocky and deflates tension with a solid one-liner. When Tracy is ultimately felled by the Coast Guard, Tricky seems genuinely mournful even when he mutters a recurring, maternal scold. Putting aside any homoerotic accusations against the buddy dynamic between them, Under the Cherry Moon lives up to its potential whenever Prince and Jerome take the screen together.

All in all, it's impossible to take Under the Cherry Moon seriously, which may have been Prince's intention. Whereas Purple Rain preached that "We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life," the philosophy guiding Under the Cherry Moon is that "Life is a parade" (if not a cabaret, Kander/Ebb-style). Removed from 30 years of infamy and in the light of countless re-evaluations of Prince's inimitable legacy, I feel like Under the Cherry Moon's disastrous reputation seems fairly out of proportion. It's never going to be hailed a masterpiece, as the movie goes from laissez faire to lackluster without as much insinuating bravado as Christopher Tracy himself demonstrates.

But as someone who wouldn't have minded if Jerome Benton had a supporting role in a Kid 'n' Play comedy, one who can contextualize the "Kiss" B-side "Love or Money" (the Worst Original Song of 1986, sez the Razzies) as being a test run for the Camille persona Prince made great on "If I Was Your Girlfriend" and just someone who really wishes Prince the same happiness in the afterworld that the end credits here offer (a music video for "Mountains," complete with Sapphic chanteuses Wendy & Lisa, Eric Leeds on the sax and the mighty Dr. Fink), I can't hate Under the Cherry Moon like I do most of the famous fiascoes that come my way.

The bonus music videos featured on the DVD helped to sway my opinion, since there were no other extras to be found besides the theatrical trailer. The video for the bona-fide classic "Kiss" remains a cheeky blast, with Prince writhing in tight black pants with a veiled dancer in black lingerie, all the while Wendy Melvoin struggles to play straight woman. The other clips are also quite joyful, from a color-corrected re-edit of "Mountains" to a scorching live version of "Anotherloverholenyohead" taped from Detroit (incidentally, the show was held on Prince's 28th birthday as part of the Revolution's soon-to-be-final tour). But the odd gem out is "Girls & Boys," which works in footage of the entire, extended band this time around and ends on a sublimely ridiculous note courtesy of...who else, Jerome Benton.

If the ghost of Prince were to haunt Jerome ("Boo!"), I can only hope that the latter's reaction remains no less than ham slam. Thank you, man.

No comments:

Post a Comment