Sign o’ the Times

Cinematically speaking, Prince has thus far appeared at both ends of the movie spectrum: He scored a tremendous, unexpected hit with the autobiographical, down-to-earth Purple Rain, then he executed a perfect bellyflop into a waterless pool with the stylized Under the Cherry Moon. For his third outing, he’s pulled back to the relative safety of a concert film.

Sign o’ the Times presents Prince in performance with his band, as they tear through a batch of songs emphasizing the album of the same title. Prince is also credited as director here, as he was on Cherry Moon.

The music is great, and as a performer Prince is nimble and clever. The sound, in all its Dolbyized glory, is fat and thumping, from the opening title tune to the jolting “Housequake” to the apparently religious closer, “The Cross.” Visually, most of the movie takes place on a stage that is decorated with various bits of pop culture flotsam.

There’s some attempt at a connecting story, which crops up in very brief linking scenes and carries over, almost subliminally, to the concert footage. This has something to do with Prince’s lust for one of his backup singer/dancers, and is played out in oblique ways.

For no apparent reason, the video to “U Got the Look,” which has been playing on MTV for a few months now, is dropped into the middle of this movie. It features Prince in an unlikely coupling with Sheena Easton. Perhaps the movie, which is under 90 minutes, needed to be padded out; this is unfortunate, since the video is clearly technically inferior to the rest of the film.

Visually, Prince keeps things moving in efficient manner, although is main visual focus is not on the sets or the crowd but on the two female members of his band. One of these is drummer/protégé Sheila E., who is quite a bit to look at on her own.

The other is a dancer known as Cat, who also serves as the aforementioned object of Prince’s lust. She is in perpetual motion, and has a different skimpy costume for almost every song. Prince obviously enjoys her so much that he very nearly lets her steal the show, and she proceeds to shake and shimmy in screen-melting fashion for the duration of the movie.

First published in The Herald, November 1987

There might have been more to this review, but I don’t remember. So here’s one of my periodic title-punctuation things: IMDb, and recent reviews, have the title as Sign ‘o’ the Times, but my review has it as Sign o’ the Times, with just the one mark, which jibes with vintage reviews by the New York Times and Roger Ebert. The poster, however, has two quotation marks on either side of the o, which is itself a peace symbol. Who knows. Prince was big on the signs and symbols, after all.

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