Judge Brett Cullum thought about changing his name to an unpronounceable symbol, but then he realized that his colleagues would probably just continue to address him as "dude."
Christopher: I must have that disease. What is it?
Under the Cherry Moon opens with a gorgeous black-and-white close-up of a doe-eyed flapper. She stares intently into the camera, her eyes glowing under a beautiful beaded scarf. You think to yourself, "This girl is wearing way too much make-up!" Then, as the light moves down her soft skin, you realize to your horror, "She's got a moustache!" You've been looking at Prince. Welcome to Nice, France, and Prince's dazzlingly bad follow-up to Purple Rain.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of Purple Rain Warner Brothers unleashes the entire Prince catalogue of nonconcert movies on an unsuspecting public. Under the Cherry Moon comes to us in an almost barebones edition—you get the movie, the trailer, and the music videos. But what more were you expecting? The film itself is more than enough to either make you ecstatic that your purple and paisley collection is almost complete or make you recoil in horror as you flash back to 1986 when somebody duped you into seeing this movie. It's bad. But the real question is—is it so bad that it's good?
Facts of the Case
Prince plays a gigolo named Christopher Tracy who makes money playing piano and taking donations from the rich married white women he beds after gigs. His partner in crime, Tricky (Jerome Benton, Purple Rain), helps out, and also seems to have a strangely homoerotic attachment to him. They decide to target a rich heiress who is turning 21 and stands to inherit fifty million dollars. Her name is Mary Sharon, and she is played by Kristin Scott Thomas (Gosford Park) in her screen debut. What begins as a con, however, turns into love. Mary's father, played by Steven Berkoff, does not approve. He wants to put the hurt on, and possibly kill, this lothario who wears too much mascara and lace. Also look for Shakespearean actress of note Francesca Annis (Lady Jessica in David Lynch's Dune) as one of Christopher's…um…patrons called Mrs. Wellington or " The Lady in White."
Prince won an Oscar for best song for "Purple Rain," and the movie and soundtrack were runaway hits in 1984. Warner Brothers was convinced he could do no wrong, so why not finance a second film project? Under the Cherry Moon seemed like something they could safely bet would be a huge hit in cinemas. Unfortunately they had no idea what was about to happen. Mary Lambert (Pet Sematary II) was assigned to direct, and a talented new screenwriter (Becky Johnston, The Prince of Tides) penned the script. Within a week of arriving on the French Riviera, Prince fired Lambert and decided to helm the film himself. The director of photography was Michael Ballhaus, known as the man behind almost every Rainer Werner Fassbinder film. He would go on to be big in Hollywood working for Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. He shot the film in color, but Prince decided it needed to be in black-and-white. Prince, it would seem, has major control issues. He's a musical genius and can play 72 instruments, but he's evidently a royal pain in the ass to work with. Little did anyone know how much he would come to control every aspect of Under the Cherry Moon in an effort to create his own self-serving vision. His ego took control and directed.
I hadn't seen Under the Cherry Moon in a long time, so I was curious what I would think of it after a couple of years. I'm a huge Prince fan, by the way. The man is a genius musically. I own all his CDs and have seen every tour since Controversy up to his recent jaunt supporting Musicology. I know this film has both detractors and champions, and who am I to pass judgment on a man who was recently inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame? But still…the movie seems to be a way for Prince to make us see him on his own terms. No matter how much you love Prince, you will never be his number one fan, because he will always love himself more. He is like a living funked-up peacock. Decked out in full make-up, pomaded hair, and impossibly high stack heels, he impudently swaggers through the film in "come ravish me" midriff-baring outfits. He is Rudolph Valentino wearing Jean Harlow's clothes.
The movie is set in no particular time along the French Riviera. The fashions of the 1920s mix with 1940s buildings, and cars from the 1950s transport Prince and the cast, who are coiffed for the 1980s. Under the Cherry Moon creates its own reality. There is no racism apparent: The father does not object to Christopher's dating his daughter because of his color but because he is a gigolo. Yet Prince and sidekick Jerome are ghetto hustlers using jive accents when they want to confuse the rich white people in France. They see money wasted on the lifeless wealthy socialites, and it is their duty to spice things up. It creates an interesting clash of cultures, but it has no grounding in any reality other than Prince's head. It's relentlessly silly, but I found myself smiling at the infectious fun everyone seemed to be having. It is a perfect copy of those Golden Age screwball comedies where the lower class invades the upper class, but updated with Prince and Jerome as black versions of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope. It's not a musical like Purple Rain. Prince plays piano, but he only lip-synchs to a radio or boom box in a few scenes. There's tons of incidental music, but he tries to act all the major moments. Let's just say that, as an actor, Prince is a really good singer. Kristin Scott Thomas as Mary Sharon acquits herself well and escapes from this project unscathed. She's beautiful, and she adds an element of poise and class that almost saves the whole endeavor. The rest of the cast is trapped in a movie that doesn't know whether it's light comedy or serious melodrama, so most of them just pick one genre on their own and roll with it.
Warner Brothers released a laserdisc version of Under the Cherry Moon, and I suspect that source print was used for this DVD transfer. It's pretty clean, but edge enhancement is apparent in most of the movie. The transfer appears pretty soft. I suspect that this is due to the processing the film went through to make it black-and-white. Grain and dirt pop up a lot, but again I wonder if the grain is sometimes on purpose. It's anamorphic widescreen and looks pretty solid on the whole for a film of this era. The audio is presented in a Dolby 2.0 Surround mix that lends itself to the music in most cases. In the song "Boys and Girls" it seems the vocal mix is turned down too low, which may have been a problem with the source. This treatment seems somewhere between the two previously available formats—VHS and the aforementioned laserdisc—in quality. Extras include a widescreen trailer, which shows its age in scratches and dirt, as well as a handful of music videos for the singles off the soundtrack album (called Parade): "Girls And Boys," "Kiss," "Mountains," and "Anotherloverholenyohead" all appear in fullscreen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
This is absolutely a guilty pleasure of a movie. It's obviously bad, and it doesn't say anything clearly. But I find some entertainment in it, and I can watch it again and again. It's totally twisted: The critical side of my brain tells me the movie is simply a botched vanity project, but then another part of me finds the whole thing charming. It's a movie Twinkie. You know it's bad for you and full of gooey cream, but you still like one every now and then. Man cannot live on Fassbinder and Fuller alone! If you're a fan, you know what I mean; if not, accept my shrug. The album is better, but the movie is pretty entertaining in a masochistic way.
The movie will go down in history as the film tied with Howard the Duck for 1987's Worst Movie of the Year at the Razzies. Prince walked away with awards for worst actor, worst director, and worst song for "Love or Money"—hardly the warm welcome Hollywood gave Purple Rain. The movie premiered in Sheridan, Wyoming, as part of an MTV contest, and it disappeared from cineplexes two weeks later. It is unbearably bad, a shining example of how to go wrong at every turn. You will marvel at the fetish Prince has with his own ass, which dominates many shots. You will cringe at the bad lines delivered with straight faces. And you may cheer when Prince gets shot and his body twists like a pretzel in the over-the-top climax. No, it's not Casablanca, or even Purple Rain. This is probably the worst movie I actually watch, but don't expect me to admit that in public. This DVD will slip in right next to the two copies of Showgirls on my secret DVD shelf. So in the final analysis—yeah, I think it's so bad it's good.
The court finds Under the Cherry Moon guilty of every crime bad cinema can commit. Nevertheless, it's still free to go because Prince is funky and we don't think his make-up, heels, and lace will go over too well in any form of incarceration. Warner Brothers gets a minor fine for releasing a barebones edition with a passable transfer.
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