In 1987, Prince was coming off a three-year creative high. His feature film debut Purple Rain was a critical and popular success, and the film’s title track became a rock standard. In the wake of Purple Rain’s runaway success, Prince recorded two albums with his backing band The Revolution; wrote, directed, and starred in the ambitious narrative feature Under the Cherry Moon; and mounted a pair of world tours. Not all of his brainchildren endured, however. Under the Cherry Moon lost money at the box office and was nominated for several Razzies, and The Revolution were starting to experience some internal tension. After disbanding his legendary Purple Rain ensemble, Prince put together a supergroup of friends and associates, recorded an album that would be the best LP of any lesser artist’s career, and directed a concert film featuring music from that album.
By this point in Prince’s career, he was recognized as a rock and roll visionary, but his excessive, carnal image was the subject of some parody in the States. He had a more consistent audience overseas, and he toured Sign ‘o’ The Times exclusively in Europe. Though the album failed to connect in the States, his label encouraged him to tour in his home country. The punishing tours for Purple Rain and Parade, combined with Prince’s exacting standards for his band, played a role in the dissolution of the Revolution, and Prince initially declined. He consented, however, to making a movie of his live appearances in support of the album.
As with all of his creative output, Prince had an ambitious vision for the film version of Sign ‘o’ The Times, one that included music, dance, beautiful women, elaborate costumes, and dramatic interludes. Unlike the narrative films that made him a star, however, concert footage proved more challenging to control—especially for a filmmaker with limited behind-the-camera experience. Footage from Prince’s concerts at the Ahoy in Rotterdam was not up to his standards, and he scrapped much of that work for a more controlled shoot in the Paisley Park Studios he opened in Minnesota.
Though only 20 percent of the footage that made the final cut came from the original shoot in the Netherlands, the libertine atmosphere of Amsterdam inspired the world of Sign ‘o’ The Times. The neon signs and sprays of flowers that adorned the stage were inspired by the city’s Red Light district and foliage, respectively, and Sheena Easton’s onstage wardrobe was in step with the 80s-does-40s aesthetic so strongly associated with fashionable western European countries. A few dramatic interludes, in which Prince eavesdrops on and discusses the nature of love and sex with a multicultural group of intellectuals, prostitutes, and teenagers, uses many techniques that French New Wave filmmakers pioneered in the 1950s (and which contemporary American directors had adapted to the new medium of music videos).
At the time of the film’s release, a few critics pointed out the lack of spontaneity in some of the concert footage. Compared to Prince’s incredible live shows—as well as to concert films like Stop Making Sense—Sign ‘o’ The Times does feel slightly canned in spots, and the transitions between concert footage and music video is janky enough to pull even the most devoted Prince fan out of the movie. If some aspects of the film point to a more European influence, the obviously staged feel of some musical numbers combined with the candy-colored stage set and costumes calls to mind another major midcentury cinematic genre: the movie musical. The tension between the audience’s expectations of a concert film and the deliberate staging of the songs reminded me of Divine Madness, but where Bette Midler and her production company knew how to combine the anything-can-happen feeling of concert films and the tableau of something like Singin’ in the Rain, Prince can’t quite make that tension work.
While Sign ‘o’ the Times has some flaws as a film, it works beautifully as a time capsule of Prince’s power as a live performer, as well as the virtuosic skill of his band. Prince commands the screen like James Brown trapped in the body of Valentino, and his beautiful close-ups and dance breaks underline the songs’ meanings and drive home the power of his work. While he consistently collaborated with some of the greatest musicians of his time, the spotlight he shone on Sheila E. shows off what an incredible drummer and charismatic performer she was. (If you wrote off Sheila E. as one of Prince’s starlet protégées—as I am embarrassed to report I did—her five-minute drum solo in Sign ‘o’ the Times will shut you up and make you realize how powerful a performer she is.)
Sign ‘o’ the Times was released at the tail end of 1987, long after Prince had shifted his focus to new projects like Camille and The Black Album. While the film played to some acclaim in a limited theatrical run, its independent distribution and spotty availability on home entertainment has prevented it from the kind of second life the extensively-memed Under the Cherry Moon has received.