By 1985, a three foot tall black man from Minnesota with a wardrobe seemingly borrowed from The Vanity 6 had reached the very pinnacle of pop superstardom. Prince was a critic's darling and a popular favorite. He'd conquered the world of film a year earlier with Purple Rain and walked away with an Academy Award and a smash-hit soundtrack in the process.
Yes, everything was coming up Milhouse for Prince. All those years of hard work and mastering his craft were finally paying off. In flush times like these, Prince is habitually visited by an angry, persistent inner voice from somewhere deep within the inner recesses of his purple and paisley soul. This agitated voice regularly issues a soul-shuddering cry for professional suicide. "Things…going…too…well…Fans….too…happy…career…proceeding…too…smoothly…must…sabotage…self…with…crazy…off-putting…stunt."
As usual, this insane inner voice urging self-destruction made some valid points. But how could Prince best go about sabotaging his thriving career? Should he change his already ridiculous prance-about stage name to something so ludicrous it couldn't even be pronounced? Maybe something so bizarre it was more or less sub-verbal, something that would make him a constant target in talk-show monologues and stand-up routines? Or should he scrawl "Slave" on his face and launch a long, public, widely mocked campaign to get out of his major label contract by comparing it to unpaid servitude? How about an album of jazz-fusion instrumentals? That'd certainly scare fans away. What if he formed his own independent label and flooded the market with three-disc monstrosities, bizarre side-projects, and increasingly irrelevant solo albums? That certainly couldn't hurt. What if he passive-aggressively fulfilled Warner Brothers' desperate cry for a Purple Rain sequel with a flaky spiritual romance about an angel named Aura? Or he could very publicly become a Jehovah's Witness, that most respected and least ridiculed of all religious sects.
Oh, but there were so many different ways for Prince to fuck up his career, Cajun-style! Over the course of his long, glorious, exquisitely checkered career, Prince would have an opportunity to try out all of the aforementioned career-wreckers. But in 1985, he happened upon an altogether more ingenious self-sabotage scheme. If those Hollywood phonies wanted another Prince movie so damn badly, he'd give them the craziest, least commercial Prince movie imaginable, a black-and-white period piece that's heavy on dialogue–oceans and oceans of terrible, terrible banter–and perversely light on musical performances. Maybe he wouldn't even sing at all! That'd show them.
I can imagine Prince's pitch. He'd look a mortified studio suit firmly in the eye and plead "Look, I know this whole black and white thing sounds risky, but if it's any consolation I'll be performing at most two or three songs. It'll be less about the music and more about dialogue and comedy. Cause when you think "hilarity," I'm the first name that springs to mind. Oh, and the soundtrack will be really weird and non-commercial and my character will be a total asshole. But that won't really matter because the woman I'm romancing–who'll be played a white, British unknown, incidentally–will be a raging bitch. Oh, and I die at the end. And I plan to direct it myself after the original director is fired. And film it almost entirely in France. In case you're worried that a hit soundtrack might accidentally fuel interest in the film, you should know I plan to give the soundtrack an entirely different name than the movie. I'll call it Parade and the film Under The Cherry Moon. Now may I please have $12 million for this can't-miss proposition?"
I imagine that after the ashen-faced executive picked his jaw up off the ground and tried his damnedest not to look mortified, he assumed that, ever the trickster, Prince was playing an elaborate practical joke and actually planned to make another Purple Rain-style conventional musical melodrama. You know, something for the teenyboppers and MTV die-hards. Warner Brothers' doom was officially sealed.
1986's Under The Cherry Moon opens with glittery narration promising an escapist fairy tale about a bad boy redeemed by the love of a good woman. From the get-go, the film promises more than it can deliver. But for its first scene, at least, the prospect of a screwball Prince romance seems not only palatable but delectable.
As the film opens, freewheeling gigolo Prince tickles the ivories while making goo-goo eyes at a potential meal ticket. He doesn't just make love to her with his eyes; he makes love to her, marries her, grows bored and disenchanteded, cheats on her, proposes a trial separation, becomes lonely, and reluctantly reconciles with her exclusively via glances, winks, and lascivious stares. In this first scene, Prince comes off like an impossibly glamorous silent screen star, a caramel-colored Valentino with big, wonderfully expressive eyes who oozes sex and glamour. It's a full-on seduction from a legendary Lothario pitched as much to the audience as his ostensible conquest. Michael Ballhaus' black and white is silky, decadent, and lush, a giddy impossible dream of retro glamour.
Initially, Prince's vision of a kinetic screwball comedy directed by Fellini comes gorgeously to life. Prince gives us not just a setting but an entire seductive fantasy world created by consummate old pros Ballhaus, a regular Scorsese collaborator, and production designer Richard Sylbert, a two-time Oscar winner with credits like Chinatown, Dick Tracy, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, and The Graduate to his name.
Then, alas, people start talking and everything goes to shit. Prince here plays a piano-playing hustler whose affections can be rented by the hour but who pines for true love. He lives with effeminate sidekick/professional manservant Jerome Benton, his half-brother and endlessly game partner in crime, mischief, and androgyny. Perhaps the only heterosexual alive who can pull off wearing a puffy pirate shirt, Prince keeps his customers satisfied with lascivious banter like, "To not hear your voice each day is to die seven times by God's wrath/if I was anything other than human I'd be the water in your bath," but when he happens upon society girl Kristen Scott Thomas (yes, that Kristin Scott Thomas, making an auspiciously inauspicious big-screen debut) at her 21st birthday he's instantly smitten.
Thomas' character is written as an elitist snob who treats Prince with aristocratic disdain and lets sinister father Steven Berkoff control her. Yet she's introduced brazenly flashing all of high society, causing a wealthy dowager to faint in horror. After gleefully crowing, "How do you like my birthday suit? I designed it myself," Thomas settles down behind a drum set and leads the crowd in a funk-rock chant of "Let it rock. You just can't stop." Have I mentioned yet that the film takes place either in the '30s, the '40s, or some strange alternate universe that looks uncannily like the distant pre-rock past yet includes boomboxes, computers, cable, answering machines, and references to Liberace and Sam Cooke?
Of course, it's possible that the filmmakers included the birthday-nudity scene to foreshadow Thomas' steady progression towards independence via her affair with Prince. Instead it feels incoherent; it's as if the filmmakers prepared one draft of the script where Thomas is a brazen, uninhibited harlot and one where she's a stuffy, repressed prude, then cavalierly combined the two without noticing any inherent contradictions
Thomas is initially repulsed by Prince's leering advances, deriding him repeatedly as a "peasant." "It may seem strange to a hustler like you, but I go out with people my own age, special people. And they don't wear wedding rings either," Thomas hisses self-righteously at Prince, to which he zanily/nonsensically retorts "Then they must be wearing diapers!" This, alas is the film's conception of sophisticated screwball banter. There are elementary school playgrounds with substantially higher levels of verbal wit and intellectual discourse than Under The Cherry Room.
Withering insults like "Maybe if you took off your chastity belt, you could breathe a little more better" vex Thomas to the point that she practices a series of equally devastating snaps to hurl Prince's way the next she sees him, settling on "You know, I could breathe a lot easier if the air weren't so polluted by your presence."
After treating Prince's moody, obnoxious playboy with withering contempt, Thomas inexplicably falls desperately in love with him, showering her exotic new lover and Benton with gifts and money. But trouble lurks around the corner in the form of Thomas' disapproving father. Will Thomas end up with the mystery man who incites her wildest fantasies or settle down with her stable, predictable (unseen) boyfriend Stuffy Q. Borington III? More importantly, will Prince ever stop behaving like a petulant middle-schooler and sing some fucking songs? Or will the audience simply be forced to choke down dialogue like the following: "Tsk, tsk what a pity. Sometimes life can be so shitty. Here's a girl who's smart and pretty." "It must be easy to swim with a head as swelled as yours." "She ain't got no street." "She wants some of Tricky Dean's pork sausage." "Mirror, mirror sevenfold, who's the finest dressed in gold?" And the following deathless exchanges: "Why are you acting that way?" "Because there's a full moon and I'm a werewolf, bitch. Kiss my ass." And "You rich girls want everything." "No, I want more."
If vintage screwball banter suggest a furious volley between two world-class tennis players, Cherry Moon's rinky-dink version feels more like a lazy game of badminton among morbidly obese amateurs. In classic screwball comedies, the leads' rapid-fire surface bickering masks lust, attraction, and ultimately something infinitely more noble and true. Here, however, the leads' withering contempt for each other feels both deeply warranted and effortlessly authentic; it's their growing attraction that feels like a half-assed, unconvincing put-on.
Prince and supremely overqualified collaborators Ballhaus and Sylbert here create a sinful, seductive world, then populate it with shrill overgrown adolescents and grating stick figures. A woefully misbegotten would-be concoction, Cherry Moon is like cotton candy with the weight and consistency of a brick. Screwball comedies are all about pacing, speed, momentum, chemistry, wit, and the heedless, exhilarating forward rush of witty banter breathlessly executed. Those are all areas where Cherry Moon is sorely lacking.
Shortly after being shot by one of Berkoff's goons, a death-bound Prince (don't worry, in a too-little, too-late bid to give the audience what they want, Prince gets to sing in heaven alongside the Revolution over the end credits) asks Thomas "We had fun, didn't we?". To tardily answer Prince's question: No, we most assuredly did not.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Fiasco