It's easy to bash the gutlessness and groupthink of record companies and movie studios. But it bears mentioning that Prince recorded Purple Rain and Sign O' The Times for Warner Brothers while that dreadful-looking album of jazz-fusion instrumentals (N.E.W.S.) stuck it to the man by going the independent route.
The backing of a major international conglomerate may be tantamount to slavery (cause, you know, well, you'd really have to ask Prince about that one), but total control creates as many problems as it solves. Imagine how much better Prince's late-period work would be if he was still collaborating with the guy in the E.R. scrubs who plays the keyboards. Dr. Fink, where are you? If left to his own devices, Prince probably would have transformed Purple Rain into a three hour-long experimental fantasia about the relationship between a magical biracial tree sprite and a leprechaun hermaphrodite.
Prince's cinematic breakthrough, Purple Rain is all about a moody, isolated control freak who learns to embrace the creative input of others. Yet the real-life Prince has about as much use for musical democracy as Mussolini did for the political version. So it's one of life's bitter ironies that Purple Rain's tardy sequel, 1990's woeful Graffiti Bridge, finds Prince once again transforming into a one-man band, writing, directing, starring and master-minding the soundtrack. I always thought the "I Will Die For You" sequence in Purple Rain should have a disclaimer reading: neither Prince nor The Revolution would die for anyone, or you, let alone each other.
Prince is a fucking genius. He's also fucking insane. Sometimes that insanity fuels his genius. Sometimes it defeats it. I have no problem with Prince acting as a goose-stepping musical dictator. When it comes to music he's a God. When it comes to movies, not so much. But do you really want Prince, of all people, to tell you how to act? That's like Britney Spears coaching opera singers. Purple Rain played to Prince's strengths as an icon and a supremely limited actor by not requiring him to do much more than brood, sulk, look cool on a motorcycle, and perform his little heart out during electrifying musical sequences.
More importantly Purple Rain preserved the enigma at the core of Prince's aesthetic. It didn't matter that Prince didn't have many lines or that his conflict with his dad came straight out of the big book of music-movie clichés. The Prince-crazy audience that flocked to Purple Rain understood instinctively that Prince was playing himself and that like the moonlighting pop star who played him, The Kid was destined for great things.
But what was mysterious and exotic in Purple Rain comes off as underwritten and idiotic in Graffiti Bridge, today's entry in My Year Of Flops. In Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge, Prince collectively played at most half a character.
Graffitti Bridge was designed as both a sequel to Purple Rain and a vehicle for Ingrid Chavez, one of a series of talented young singer-songwriters Prince nurtured creatively. And by "talented young singer-songwriters," I of course mean "talentless skanks" and by "nurtured creatively" I mean "fucked." Throughout the '80s, Prince apparently couldn't so much as get a handjob from a woman without signing her to his label and promising to elevate her to superstardom.
In the '80s and early '90s Prince's Paisley Park playground doubled as a finishing school for musically inclined hoochies, though Prince was wise enough to get out of the skank business for good after subjecting the world to Carmen Electra. I suspect that anytime Electra visited Paisley Park, it took Prince's army of manservants, each cloned from Jerome Benton's DNA, months to get rid of the overwhelming stench of K-Y jelly, cheap perfume, Boone's Farm, and desperation.
Incidentally, was anyone else into The Box, the pay-per-view music video channel that functioned as the nasty-ass Hustler to MTV's upscale Playboy? Its motto seemed to be "Less Class, More Boobies", which suited my 14-year-old self just fine. I remember Electra's Prince-penned debut "Go Go Dancer" far more vividly than I should. While we're tripping merrily down memory lane, I fondly remember picking up the Graffiti Bridge soundtrack cassette in the $2.99 cutout bin. That was the shit back in the day.
In Grafitti Bridge, Ingrid Chavez plays a heavenly creature who becomes ensnared in the rivalry between flashy funkster Morris Day and Christ-like tortured artist Prince. But Chavez's character seems less touched by an angel than touched in the head. Chavez's spacey performance aims for beatific but dead ends at "mentally challenged." Prince seems to have directed Chavez to act "like that Corky kid from Life Goes On, only, you know, sexy."
Chavez descended from heaven both to save Morris Day's soul and afflict the world with her terrible, terrible poetry. Because you didn't ask, here are some samples: "Seven corners. Two souls fight. One wants money. One wants light. Without peace, without love, nothing's ever going to turn out right." "In the city of screaming trees, no faith strikes again. When love's reply is a whisper, love shall win." "Abandoned on the street at the tender age of seven. How could I ever learn the real meaning of heaven? Surely not from a fast-talker born to molest a woman's mind. Surely not on the dance floor with someone else's idea of a good time. Fate, the only mother that I've ever really known. Give me the courage to face the things yet unshown."
Did I mention that Chavez's character is named Aura? Or that she recites her "poems" in that obnoxious one-size-fits-all poetry slam cadence? Prince quickly becomes fixated on Chavez and, in a little-employed seduction technique, woos his cryptic muse by playing hangman with her on a heart-shaped note pad. While Prince romances his earth angel, he simultaneously battles arch-nemesis Day for control of nightclub The Glam Slam. It's a struggle with quasi-profound ramifications that crystallizes Prince's long-standing obsession with sin and salvation, sex and Godliness, the hungers of the body and the demands of the spirit. Or, at least, it should be. Instead it plays like a cartoon parody of Prince's soft-headed spiritual concerns.
Great melodies and vicious guitar solos can excuse an awful lot of fuzzy mysticism, clumsy writing, and clunky lines. You could probably fill a coffee table book with groan-inducing Prince lyrics. But film is a much more unforgiving medium, so lines like the following land with a resounding, decidedly unmusical thud: "Are there really angels? Or are they just in our mind? It all comes out in the wash. In time." "Man, F this noise." "You know what your problem is? You have too many problems. That's what your problem is." (Also you repeat things unnecessarily. In a redundant fashion even.) "Are there really angels or are they just in our mind?" "Yo Kid, I need a break, man. When you gonna let me rap?" "That's Morris Day. He'd like to eat you–I mean meet you." "My poems are like my children. One day this one's gonna make his momma proud. Aren't you, baby? 'Yes mommy!'"
Graffiti Bridge's visual aesthetic, meanwhile, can charitably be described as mid-period Living Colour or Ridley Scott for dummies: fans everywhere, weird beams of light, lurid neon, smoke as far as the eye can see, and big, almost comically artificial-looking sets. Of course it doesn't help that ninety percent of the film seems to take place in either the Glam Slam set that looks left over from Cool As Ice or a single, constantly recycled alleyway. Nor does it help that other than Prince everyone appears to be angling for a spot in MC Hammer's posse.
Yet the film's soundtrack goes a long way toward redeeming this misbegotten effort. It's not classic Prince, but it's rock-solid from start to finish, an eclectic mélange of funk-pop workouts, soulful, sultry ballads and terrific pop songs like the monster single "Thieves in The Temple." Remarkably, the justly popular and acclaimed soundtrack was essentially nothing more than a stitched-together collection of outtakes, leftovers, and old shit Prince had lying around with a handful of new recordings thrown in for good measure.
In a running gag, New Power Generation rapper T.C. (that's "Twin Cities" for those who care) Ellis pleads with Prince throughout the film for a chance to show off his mad mic-controlling skillz yet has to wait until the end credits before he can spit hot bars. Ellis used to be an inexplicable inside joke among A.V Clubbers back in the section's prehistoric days. Here's a chart I wrote about him back in the last millennium. Goddamn I'm old. And ridiculous. Ellis should ultimately consider himself lucky his appearance is so small and inconsequential: debuting in Graffiti Bridge is a little like scoring your first paying gig playing fiddle on the Titanic.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco