Sign 'O' the Times (1987; dir. Prince)

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[Note: This was written for a reading I recently did from my volume in the 33 1/3 series on Prince's Sign 'O' the Times, along with Douglas Wolk, who read from his book on James Brown's Live at the Apollo and played an amazing record about James Brown by one of his acolytes. The piece is meant to rectify my utter failure to include the Sign movie as part of the book, which I wrote in two weeks following my overseeing a pair of cover packages at my then-new job at Seattle Weekly. Call it the missing chapter of the 33 1/3, and enjoy.]

"He wants to settle down," Prince's dancer and backing vocalist Cat Glover explains in voiceover during one of the handful of needless interruptions in Prince’s only theatrically released concert film. "I want to know why a wolf is dressed as a lamb." The camera then pans out her bedroom window and onto a stage where Prince begins singing "If I Was Your Girlfriend" . . . in a white fur coat. You gotta love the guy--extolling the virtues of monogamy while dressed as a pimp. No wonder Rick James hated him.

That’s not the only reason, of course. As quiet as it’s kept in the wake of the closely timed double whammy of his death and his elevation as nationally beloved caricature in the hands of Dave Chappelle, Rick James was a very limited talent. Prince, especially by Sign ‘O’ the Times, seemed nearly limitless as a musician. The album demonstrated it flatly, and while the movie can be thought of as an extension of the album, and thus a like demonstration, it can also be seen as an attempt to do something grander. Sign ‘O’ the Timesthe album came together by concentrated work, yes, but also by happenstance, its initial three-album length shaved down unwittingly at first, the handful of binding concepts eventually jettisoned in favor of 16 songs that were both more various and more coherent. Sign ‘O’ the Timesthe movie, though, is anything but a scrapbook. Once Prince figured out the shape of his masterpiece, he could play with it, and he could also use it as a springboard to try to go beyond what he’d accomplished.

That’s the shape the movie takes. Or rather, that’s the shape the music in the movie takes: at no point in his career would anybody not on the artist’s payroll claim Prince was a filmmaker. Saul Austerlitz, in his recent history of music video, asserts that Prince’s videos were often stiff because they relied less on visual or storytelling canniness than on the electricity of their star’s persona and stagecraft. I like Prince’s videos a lot more than Austerlitz does but I’d be lying if I said he didn’t have a point. Purple Rain was magnetic, the stuff of instant myth. Something really was coursing through the air at the time, and the movie really did capture it. It wasn’t a very good movie, granted, but myths have been built from less, and the live scenes remain among the greatest ever shot.

Still, Prince’s film limits are suggested by watching the 20th anniversary DVD of the film released in 2004, which is appended by videos for every single released from the album. Aside from “When Doves Cry,” featuring nakey-Prince emerging from the tub, every single piece of film these clips use is taken from the film, which means you see the same images over and over and over again. (The DVD also contains badly kept footage of MTV’s coverage of the film’s premiere, which is catnip for scholars of the period, largely by its touching reminder that the channel was nearly as gawky as real life before even musicians had all the spontaneity media-trained out of them. The only person with any real degree of comfort in front of the cameras, the VJs included, is Eddie Murphy, whose answer to what brings him to the premiere--“’Cause Prince is bad!”--is accompanied by a stare so withering he wouldn’t approach it again until the scene where he’s about to shoot up in Dreamgirls.)

Sign ‘O’ the Times repeats motifs from Purple Rain as well, such as Prince showing us, during an interlude, a display window with a ring in a giant pink heart-shaped cushion. (He’s already playing the guitar from the same display window we saw in Purple Rain.) But this isn’t quite what Purple Rain would have been had they killed the backstage bullshit. For one thing, Sign moves much of the bullshit onstage, starting with the opening sequence: Gregory Allen Brooks and Cat Glover having a fight you’d have to strain to dub “elliptical.” He: “Just tell me what you want.” Rat-a-tat-tat. She: “Trust.” He: “No, nuh-uh.” Rat-a-tat-tat. She: “Love.” He: “Mon-ay.” She: “Sex.” He: [nods vigorously]. She: “Talking.” He: “Bullshit.” Finally, something everyone watching can agree with.

Sign ‘O’ the Times was originally shot live in concert in Rotterdam and Paris, but much of it was later reshot at the then-recently built Paisley Park studios, where Prince redubbed most of the soundtrack as well. In one way, the musical sequences are very of their time: lots of MTV-style editing, plenty of crosscutting between band members, a semi-coherent “plot” intercut between the music, and sometimes in the middle of it--during the second song, “Play in the Sunshine,” a painfully dubbed Prince asks, “Hey Cat, wanna go out tonight?” “Fuck off,” she responds. This is also the song that features another, cough, “plot point”: Prince introduces, “On the drums, Sheila E! Not bad--for a girl,” which cues a close-up of a snarling Sheila, mid-beat. Most drummers look like they’re about to spit cud while playing as hard as she does on this and many of the other songs, but we get the idea, because we’re meant to, that this cues a romantic rivalry between the two women for Prince. This will be resolved, oddly, with “If I Was Your Girlfriend”: showing what a sensitive guy you really are makes everything all better—right, fellas? Sheila gets to be coequals during “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” too, when Prince hi-fives her while she takes the microphone for her “rap” (read: reciting an Edward Lear poem really fast) as Prince plays drums. There is a really nice double-dutch routine between Sheila and Cat, and Cat gets to “beat up” various male band members. Girl power, or something. And of course we end on “The Cross,” with Prince in an artfully scuffed blue denim jacket and Nehru pants. If you’re gonna sing about Jesus, looking like Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon at their most messianic probably doesn’t hurt.

You can ignore this imagery or not, though it’s clear the artist would prefer you didn’t. Either way, most of what is worthwhile about Sign ‘O’ the Times--which is to say, a lot—is the way Prince uses this rivalry purely to push his stagecraft. That isn’t to say the filmmaking, per se. The cutting isn’t as simple as in Purple Rain, where the sequences built because the cameras largely stayed put, or simply followed the star while the Revolution burned behind him. That made sense, musically: the Revolution was somewhat anti-virtuosic as a rule. The Sign band had one bona fide virtuoso besides the leader. Sheila E plays a drum set so ridiculously tricked out it would have made Neil Peart squeal even higher. But the Revolution helped make Prince a rock hero because it rocked. It funked, too, but Under the Cherry Moon wasn’t a concert film. Either way, Sign was more dynamic than anything Prince had ever done, and the band that toured it could keep up with its entire range in a way that’s harder to imagine the Revolution doing.

Of course he wanted to show them off. The mid-set cover of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time” is intended not just for a costume change or a rather silly sequence involving sidekicks Gregory Brooks and Wally Safford playing cards, fistfighting, and getting arrested, but to allow longer close-ups of the players: saxophonist Eric Leeds and trumpeter Matt Blistan, a.k.a. Atlanta Bliss; keyboardists Boni Boyer and Dr. Fink, the Revolution’s sole holdover; guitarist Miko Weaver, shirtless, with black cloth hanging over his glasses; bassist Levi Seacer, Jr., who would later switch to guitar and become Prince’s key collaborator during the ’90s (not the faint praise it might sound like; Prince’s ’90s isn’t on par with his ’80s but it still deserves serious re-evaluation). Sheila, of course, climaxes with a drum solo ending with her playing the cymbals with her hands. There are other close-ups of band members, my favorite of which is Boni Boyer doing an absolutely joyous whole-body dance during “Housequake.” The entire performance of that song is incendiary, and it peaks with the movie’s finest shot, an audience-eye camera that starts on Cat, only to have Prince emerge from the bottom of the frame, propelling himself across the stage while flat on his back.

That moment has the feel of a live show, but you can spot the hefty number of re-shot sequences. They’re blended well enough that you’d have to study it closely to spot the difference. The band’s entry during the opener, “Sign ‘O’ the Times,” is probably some of both. After the song proper, featuring Prince on guitar, Dr. Fink buried in the background on synth, and Cat dancing furiously, with a drum machine keeping the beat, the rest of the group enters playing the tattoo on marching-band snares. It’s impossibly dramatic and completely effective--so much so that D’Angelo would steal it outright for the beginning of the shows on his 2000 tour behind Voodoo.

Maybe most audacious of all, Prince he incorporates the video of “U Got the Look” as, get this, a “dream sequence,” with montaged show footage and backstage stuff (everyone preparing to hit the stage, a group prayer) during the song’s intro to connect it. It’s kind of ingenious, really, from a budget standpoint: he made a video for the song featuring roughly the same stage setup, so why let it go to waste?

I’m convinced, though, that at least one of the audience shots was redone at Paisley as well. Looking at Purple Rain again on that 20th anniversary DVD, I noticed something about the crowds at First Avenue: They were overwhelmingly white. Since I’m from Minneapolis and in fact worked for two-and-a-half-years at First Avenue, this wasn’t the least bit surprising. Minneapolis is a very white city; the first serious black population influx came in the wake of Purple Rain, in fact. Watch the audience in most of Sign ‘O’ the Times and you’ll see much the same thing: Prince filmed shows in Europe, not the U.S. But during “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man,” you’ll notice something different about the audience. Where did all the black people come from? And why did they appear during this song? Because it’s about a pregnant mother of one whose man runs away from her? White people do that shit, too, Prince.

I’m concentrating on visuals here partly because a lot of the music is very similar to the album. “I Could Never Take the Place” here has a very different intro: runaway drums more headlong than anything else in the film broken through by an absolutely lovely piano run of the melody, then horns that are very Broadway, after a fashion, appropriately so since we get a full blown scenario enacted by Cat, Greg Brooks, and Wally Safford as a bartender. He ad-libs during the second verse, after “You wouldn’t be satisfied,” “At least I wouldn’t,” with the biggest smile of his life. Then he solos, and note for note, inflection for inflection, it is almost exactly the same as on the album. The editing finds a nice steady rhythm here, and it’s wonderful to watch him throw flowers into the crowd from atop the piano, then wail away on the guitar solo’s second half, completely in his element.