Compared to his massive discography, extensive collection of live bootlegs, and vaults full of tantalizingly unknowable gems, Prince’s career on film is heartbreakingly short: Purple Rain (1984), Under the Cherry Moon (1986), Sign O’ the Times (1987), and Graffiti Bridge (1990).
Of these, Purple Rain is the best known, as it accompanied Prince’s public transition from dynamic entertainer to world-conquering star, and culminates with the legendarily histrionic performance of “Purple Rain.” It also helped inspire Dave Chappelle’s skit about Prince and basketball, an inexhaustible source of Prince-related laughter. But it’s Sign O’ the Times, a concert movie now remarkably hard to find in the U.S., that remains the star’s finest cinematic moment, a svelte jolt of everything that captures Prince at his most dazzling: the singing, the dancing, the multi-instrumental talent, the rapport with his band and those bolero-chic outfits.
Prince released his Sign O’ the Times double album in 1987, and the record represented the capstone of his recklessly fertile Eighties period – from the one-two punch of Dirty Mind and Controversy to the pop hits of 1999 and Purple Rain, the psychedelic swirl of Around the World in a Day and the Euro-eroto funk of Parade. He changed direction repeatedly; he was running out of new areas to explore.
But he managed to find three more for ninth studio project. First, vocal manipulation – several tracks feature Prince singing as if he’d just inhaled a balloon full of helium, hold-overs from an entire project he’d planned from the perspective of a female alter ego named Camille. Second, horns: up to this point, Prince’s brand of funk was (mostly) boldly bereft of brass – a radical move following the horn-heavy bombast of Seventies R&B – but he incorporated these regal textures more than ever before here. Finally, Prince relied on strength in numbers. Up until this point, he had never put together such a lengthy project: Sign O’ the Times is a deluge designed to destroy a listener’s meager defenses.
It remains a rich, vibrant record – one of the shocking things about Prince is the way his Eighties music doesn’t sound dated, despite the fact that he was using the same technology that now makes so many albums from that period sound trapped. But that’s only part of the story. The Sign O’ the Times movie captures performances of 11 songs from the record, and throws in a brief yet revelatory rendition of “Little Red Corvette” for good measure. There are a few acted set pieces, but it mostly plays as a straight concert film, tracking Prince and his band as they steam through the set.
And the film adds invaluable depth to his work, especially if you were never fortunate enough to catch him live. Prince takes the stage in orange bell-bottom jumpsuit with matching high-heel boots and feather earrings that reach down to his shoulders. That turns out to be just one of many jumpsuit-overalls combos in his wardrobe – he riffs through several during the course of the action, many of which have holes to ventilate his pointy hip bones.
The visual flair is exacerbated by Prince’s dancing. He danced in Purple Rain too, and he expertly humped the stage during “Beautiful Ones,” but here you get more of both dancing and humping: James Brown splits, the dexterous tricks with the microphone stand, the sudden eruption out of the upper half of his jumpsuit, a sort of reverse version of the worm where he wiggles across the floor on his back mostly by vigorously thrusting his pelvis into the air. He gyrates suggestively with his microphone stand, and rubs it salaciously as well – after all, this is Prince, who did more than most to inject explicit sexuality into pop’s mainstream.
The music also benefits immeasurably from the live treatment. Prince’s performance of “If I Was Your Girlfriend” was already astonishing, a sensitive plea for understanding paired with the world’s most brittle, callous funk. The live version is something else entirely. The tempo picks up, a guitar colors around the original rhythm’s emaciated bones, an organ plays sustained chords; the result is lithe groove, Prince walking on water.
This reimagining is followed in the movie by the definitive version of “Forever in My Life,” a song full of old-fashioned sentiments about eternal romance and thoroughly modern sound design. Prince’s outfit now approximates a French gendarme cutting out of work early to attend the disco; he plays a red acoustic guitar, unusual for him in the Eighties, when he preferred to shatter his hyper-tense tracks with immolating electric riffs. Suddenly his backing vocalists channel the zest of gospel, amplifying the contrast between human emotion and mechanical rhythm; Prince even hands the lead over to the singer Boni Boyer for a spell, and she promptly lets loose with churchy fervor. Them in the film’s final image, rose petals strewn across the stage suddenly lift off and take flight. Before Prince, even nature is moved.
Things changed for Prince after Sign O’ the Times. He wasn’t able to retool his sound with the same startling efficiency, and his reign as pop’s innovator-in-chief was challenged by the dawn of hip-hop’s golden age – rap was an ascendant form that Prince dabbled in but never grew comfortable with. But while he ceded his place on pop’s front lines, he never ceded command of the stage. Watch the movie, and you see exactly how Sign O’ the Times distills the full breadth of his powers into one divine housequake.