Prince: Sign o’ the Times

Prince - Sign o the TimesSynopsis: In front of a crowd at the Rotterdam Music Hall, Prince and his band bring to life his album “Sign ‘O’ the Times” that garnered him a Grammy nomination for “Album of the Year”. Directed with the raw energy of the Minneapolis rocker himself, the movie is punctuated with specially filmed, dramatic vignettes appearing occasionally between songs. Drummer Sheila E. rocks the house and Sheena Easton makes a special appearance to strut her stuff. You won’t want to miss these sizzling live renditions of his hits such as “Little Red Corvette” and “U Got the Look”. This is Prince unleashed!

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Prince: Sign o’ the Times 8.0

eyelights: Prince’s stagecraft. Sheila E’s skill and sexiness. the undeniably funky music.
eyesores: Eric Leeds’ accoutrement.

“If you go to only one concert this year… the Prince movie is the one!”

I was a HUGE Prince fan once. Before he emancipated from Warner Bros. (after which, ironically, his output greatly diminished), I collected every CD that the Purple One released – and even rare LPs, even though I didn’t have a turntable. In fact, to this day, there is no artist who graces my library shelves as much as Prince does (although Depeche Mode comes a close second, and Björk has gained a lot of traction in recent years).

However, there was a time when I just couldn’t fathom and couldn’t be bothered with Prince.

I was first made aware of his existence at the time of ‘Purple Rain’. Although he’d been on the scene for years already and had garnered a few massive hits by then, it was this breakout album that got my notice – and only because a friend came over, having just purchased it, wanting to play “When Doves Cry” for me. I didn’t get it, not one bit. And the incessant barrage of videos from that album failed to capture my interest either.

Prince was everywhere. Prolific as he was early in his career, and armed by the marketing power of Warner Bros. Records, he usually released one album a year – each culling at least 2-3 singles a piece. I couldn’t escape him even if I could – even though I tried (he looked too sleazy for my taste, and I couldn’t get beyond this image problem). I couldn’t get past the album cover for ‘Lovesexy’,  and was utterly baffled by “Batdance” and its video.

But a friend of mine had a copy of ‘Sign o’ the Times’ at his place. For some reason or another, it was playing one afternoon and I inquired as to who that was. When I was told it was Prince, I was surprised – the album sounded nothing like the other stuff I’d heard. At least, the little bit that I heard, perhaps 2-3 songs’ worth. My curiosity piqued, I borrowed the tape and proceeded to listen to it intently until I was forced to return it (it was his sister’s after all).

By then, I’d made a copy of it, and it would end up being one of the most worn tapes in my ever-growing collection.

‘Sign ‘o’ the Times’ would change everything: with that album, I reassessed Prince. Then I bought the ‘Purple Rain’ cassette from a friend who had no use for it, and fell in love with it (the full-length album version of “When Doves Cry” remains my all-time favourite songs). Then I bought the ‘Batman’ soundtrack and couldn’t stop playing it. By the time that ‘Diamonds and Pearls’ came out in 1991, I was a devotee. In fact, ‘Graffiti Bridge’ had been one of my first CDs.

I lapped up anything Prince-related and collected like mad, but it would be a couple of years before I discovered that he had released this concert film in 1987, mere months after the ‘Sign o’ the Times’ album came out. I found it on the shelves of a music store that also rented videos. I didn’t get a chance to see it, though: the store closed soon thereafter. I would have to wait a little while longer to find a used copy of this VHS tape. By then, I was very eager.

It was just about the best concert film I had ever seen!!! Admittedly, I had seen very few at that point, but I never would have fathomed this kind of energy and stage craft. Pretty much all I had known, aside from Duran Duran, Michael Jackson and Madonna, was hair metal and grunge. I had no inkling of the potency a live show could have, of the energy it could harness. And I had no idea that Prince could be so very awesome in concert. So very awesome.

The picture starts on a set that is made to look an empty big city street. Prince is on his way to a club, when he overhears a couple arguing over the girl’s relationship needs. They’re accompanied by another girl, who is either a friend or a ho (given that the guy is pimped out and that his gf looks trampy, who knows what’s going on). After eavesdropping on them discretely, Prince continues on to the club, where the concert is set to begin.

It turns out that the couple are part of the backup singers and were used to add a touch of drama to ‘Sign o’ the Times’. The picture will shift between concert footage and brief interstitial material throughout, no doubt because the concert has been cobbled together from various footage. In any case, as it stands, the picture jumps right into the first number the moment that Prince makes it through the doors of the club.

1. Sign o’ the Times: The opening track of the original double album, it’s a terrific warm-up, as its a mid-tempo funk with a message – something that wouldn’t play as well later in the show, when it all breaks out. When I first heard this track, I was surprised by the subject matter that Prince delved into. You could talk about gritty social ills like that in pop music? Really?

The focus of the concert footage is on Prince and on the girl from the intro (Cat Glover, who will be back-up singer and dancer for the show) both in shadows. We can’t see anyone else. This version is backed by heavy guitar feedback, has a great  beat and is pretty groovy. The rest of the band, fronted by Sheila E, march in with military drums. It’s a great touch in all respects.

Prince is wearing the first in a long line of costumes throughout the show: a long black leather coat. He would proceed to change his outfit a good 6 to 8 times throughout. In any case, as a first impression, this is killer stuff. The track isn’t nearly as good as its studio counterpart, but it plays well live and it really does set the stage quite nicely. 8.0

2. Play in the Sunshine: I always enjoyed the studio version of this song. It’s a playful  number that’s exuberant enough to kick things into gear. The live version doesn’t sound nearly as clean, but it’s fun anyway. For some reason, it’s played faster on stage. The band is very much into it, truth be told, moving back and forth about the stage. Sheila’s at it, pounding the drums with everything she’s got (look at that drum kit!). Naturally, Prince introduces her: she deserves the attention. 8.0

3. Little Red Corvette: I’ve never been a big fan of this song, although it is one of the highlights of ‘1999’. It’s a decent pop song, no more. But it sure gives the show momentum. For this version, Prince is higher up on the stage, on a piano, and they only play a small part before abruptly cutting it short for the next track – as Prince jumps down to the main level. 7.5

4. Housequake: “Housequake” starts abruptly even on the album, but it doesn’t translate so well here – perhaps because “Little Red Corvette” is in the way (it originally followed “Play in the Sunshine”). This was definitely one of the first funky tracks I’d ever heard (or at least, ever dug). I remember not getting it, but really digging the groove. Naturally, the show also gets funkier with Prince doing splits and twirling a lot. The whole band is also jumping in unison to the groove – except Prince and Sheila, naturally. This is some funky $#!t. And Cat has some serious moves. Now freed from his guitar, so does Prince. 8.0

5. Slow Love: It took me years to really savour this song’s vibe, being as slow as its title. But it’s damned sexy. Damned sexy. The live version starts with a sax solo. Unsurprisingly, the audience’s lighters are out for this one. This one features a terrific vocal from Prince; it may not seem like a complex song, but it’s really smooth, moody. Prince ends up on his back, wrapped around his mic stand. Throughout, Cat and her counterpart mimic lovey-dovey body language together – when they’re not singing and dancing, of course (Phew… she’s got such a tight, muscular body). Eric Leeds, the saxman, is wearing a black cloak and sunglasses. I don’t know what that’s about, but it just doesn’t fit. Still, this is one fantastic song and performance. 8.5

6. I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man: This is one of the highlights of the album for me. It’s a high-tempo song, and it’s got a really hooky vocals backed by a notable keyboard lick. For the live version, it starts with an intro from the horn section and then enters into a playful and jazzy keyboard/horns/drums jam. Then a drum rhythm and sax duo kicks in.

There a little theater here as the pimp/bf and a bartender discuss his ho/gf. The song begins but the keyboards are in the wrong key. The drums are awesome, though. Meanwhile, Cat arrives, and is ditched by her beau. She starts eyeing Prince, who’s busy playing the song. There’s a fantastic thump coming from the bass drum here, and then an extended jam featuring a superb guitar solo by Prince. There’s a build-up, and then the track explodes. Very nice. 8.25

7. Hot Thing: This was never my favourite song on the album, and this doesn’t change here – no amount of sexy choreography from Prince and Cat can fix that. By this point, Prince is at his Nth costume change already. The song starts with drums and Prince jamming on an organ while Cat going at it against a grate. Prince calls the rest of boys over and talks about how hot she is – before breaking into the song proper. Meh. 7.0

8. Now’s the Time: This is a cover of a Charlie Parker number and it features the whole band aside for Prince. I don’t know the original, but this is a chaotic, horn-based jam with running bass. It’s very jazzy, funky. And pretty spectacular. The band members are given a chance to shine here, first with a sax solo, then a bass solo, followed by an extended Sheila E solo. As Prince cheekily says, not bad… for a girl. Ooh… double bass drum! Sheila E is f-ing awesome! For some reason, this performance featured two guys on the stage mimicking gambling and then fighting over it. 7.5

9. U Got the Look: This is the song that hooked me when I was at my buddy’s place. I can’t remember what it was about it that caught me then, but now I love the funky/sexy backing groove – the interplay between Prince and Sheena Easton is also terrific. It remains one of my favourite Prince tracks to this day (of course, given how much Prince I have, there’s probably 20 tracks ahead of this one).

For some reason, this is a video, not concert footage – even if the video takes place on a stage. It begins with Prince backstage, resting in a chair; the video is meant to be a dream sequence. He’s imagining Sheena Easton over an extended opening to the song. The rest of the video is a mock concert performance including the whole band and Easton in various outfits. The lip synching is really poor. 8.5  (on the strength of the song – I actually prefer this extended version to the album cut).

10. If I Was Your Girlfriend: This is one of my all-time favourite tracks, and is only second to “When Doves Cry” as far as Prince tracks go. It totally changed my perception of relationships because it blurs the lines between the roles of men and women. Plus it had that sexually frank passage towards the end that utterly blew my mind. Even musically, it doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard. It’s a one-of-a-kind (for the record: TLC muffed their version of it).

The performance starts with Cat on a bedroom set, laying on the bed, talking on the phone and then writing in a journal. Then the camera takes us through her window and onto the stage where Prince is wearing a poofy white fur coat.  Sadly, the live version lacks something; it’s funkier, but less sexy. During bridge/solo Prince dances in the shadows. Then he and Cat go on a platform at the top of the stage and mock-grind against a heart-shaped backing that gradually lowers them horizontally. 7.5

11. Forever in My Life: Again on a set, Prince beckons us closer to see a ring in a store window. Then we’re back in the concert hall. The crowd is singing “oh wee oh’ in unison (seems like they got the wrong song). The original version of this song is okay, but it’s at the bottom rung of all the choice tracks on the album. The live version is an extended jam. It’s much looser and the background vocals are a bit off. Most of the musicians are on stage dancing, jamming. It’s like a party. Geez… Sheila E. is sexy as all get out. The song doesn’t seem to go anywhere and eventually fades out abruptly after something like 10 mins. 7.5

12. It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night: The performance starts with a shot of Prince and Cat eyeing a plasma globe (a recurring visual throughout the film). The original album version is also live and it’s a party track. This version fades in with a heavy drum beat. The male band members are singing “oh wee oh” repetitiously, creating a rhythm. The song is faster here and is super high energy. Prince shows off some serious moves here; he’s so “on”. Then, when Sheila comes down to rap, he takes over drumming duties. She’s excited and she raps really fast. She’s awesome (did I say that already?). It’s a superb number and performance – a highlight of the movie, and it would have been amazing to see live. 8.5

13. The Cross: This is a slow r&b track about the power of Christ (this was before Prince became a Jehova’s Witness, naturally – he performs it with changed lyrics now).  Say what you will about its lyrical content, but it’s a beautiful track anyway. Prince’s vocals are superb, spot on. Midway, the song suddenly kicks in with the full band; it makes for a great jamming outro, complete with guitar solo and horns. It’s a great way to close the set and picture. The film overlaid recap footage from earlier in the show and bookended the song with shots of rose petals falling to the ground. 8.0

Honestly, watching it this time around was less exciting than during any of my previous viewings. I don’t know why that is, but it’s possible that my impression was coloured by the newfound knowledge that many of the performances are not actually live – so I was carefully watching for signs of what was and what wasn’t live. This is something I had never noticed until I convinced a friend of mine to buy the DVD and he immediately pointed this out.

It so happens that Prince and his band had originally recorded concert performances on June 26-29 in The Netherlands and Belgium but the footage was too grainy and the audio was problematic. So they decided to reshoot the performance at Prince’s Paisley Park studio, where the interstitial material was also shot, and edited it all together with shots of the audience to make it appear live. Eric Leeds apparently said that 80% of the footage is from Paisley Park.

Well, despite being less enthused this time around, I nonetheless had a great time. So you can imagine how I felt the first half-dozen times!

‘Sign o’ the Times’ may be slightly disjointed (it was directed by Prince, who is hardly a stellar filmmaker), but it’s a phenomenal interpretation of that period in the Purple One’s career. It’s not nearly as good as the album itself (his best, in my estimation), but it’s a powerhouse performance, and any music addict or Prince fan has to watch this at least once: It shows one of the music’s world most talented artists at his most prolific, eclectic best.

Date of viewing: June 25, 2014

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