In 1984, Prince first expanded his great musical talents to the big screen in Purple Rain. It has its detractors, but it’s more highly regarded than most rock musicals and it was a huge commercial success, buoyed by a fantastic soundtrack. It led Prince to follow it up two years later with Under the Cherry Moon, another musical film, this time directed by himself. This was a flop though, panned by critics and avoided by audiences. Perhaps due to this failure, the next film Prince directed was a relatively more straightforward concert film, Sign ‘o’ the Times. It was made largely because the album of the same name, whilst popular in Europe, wasn’t selling particularly well in the US, so the record company felt backing it up with a film might boost sales. Unfortunately, the film was another commercial failure, even though the critical response was strong. It did well on VHS, particularly in the UK, but has drifted into obscurity since, in comparison with the rest of Prince’s work.
Looking to bring Sign ‘o’ the Times back into the public eye, 101 Films are releasing the film on Blu-ray in a presumably one-off ‘Purple Label’ range. With Prince’s tragic death 4 years ago prompting a huge outpouring of grief from his many fans, it’s high time the film was re-assessed, as it’s pretty damn good, in my opinion.
As mentioned, it’s a relatively straight forward concert film on the surface, showing Prince and his band perform largely just songs from the Sign ‘o’ the Times album (plus ‘Little Red Corvette’ and a cover of ‘Now’s the Time’). However, it’s ‘enhanced’ by some short narrative interludes featuring Prince and two members of his band. Also, due to Prince not being happy with the original concert material shot (reportedly it was quite grainy and the sound quality wasn’t good enough), most of the musical performances were shot in Prince’s own studio instead of live in front of an audience.
Live purists (if such a thing exists) might scoff at this fact, but the studio production makes for a very slick and polished film. Plus, the energy given off by Prince is as irresistible as I imagine it would be at any ‘real’ concert.
That’s what impressed me most about the film. It has a tremendous drive, with few lulls, even during the couple of slower numbers. Prince was such an amazing showman and he’s on top form here, putting great passion into the music and pulling off some eye-popping dance moves. The sexuality present in much of his music is here too, with some potently raunchy sequences that will raise an eyebrow or two.
His band are also impressive, providing an infectious funk-rock groove that will keep you bopping along from start to finish. Drummer Sheila E. gets to show off her immense talents behind an enormous kit, most notably in an extended solo that will drop your jaw.
The film looks great too, with boldly coloured lighting and dense smoke bringing atmosphere to the extravagant and impressively designed stage/set. The camera glides and pans regularly, adding to the thrilling energy of the show.
The narrative inserts are rather dated, with some hammy acting better served for stage than screen, but these are very short and effectively bridge the songs to keep the audience engaged. The insertion of the music video for ‘U Got the Look’, featuring Sheena Easton, feels out of place too, not helped by a drastically different picture quality. It’s a great track though, so is acceptable here and it’s presented as a dream sequence within the film to try to justify its unusual look.
All in all, it’s an energetic, bold and colourful showcase for Prince’s genius. It shows its ages perhaps in places, but the music is as infectious and exciting as ever. Prince sure as hell knows how to put on a show and it’s captured here in all its glory. Even fair-weather fans of the artist (including me, to be honest) will be converted. It’s one of the strongest concert films I’ve seen and deserves to be better known.
Sign ‘o’ the Times is out on 20th January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by 101 Films. The picture looks fantastic for the most part, with rich, bold colours and strong details. Some of the darker wide shots look a little rough, with a troublesome grain. These are likely from the live material originally shot on the album tour though. The Sheena Easton-featuring ‘dream sequence’ looks ropey too, though the original music video was used here, rather than reshooting any new material on film. The audio comes through beautifully throughout, which is perhaps the most important thing.
Unfortunately, there are no special features included on the disc. It does come in an attractive purple Blu-ray case though, if that’s any consolation.