Prince: The Undertaker

Prince - The UndertakerSynopsis: 6 live direct 2 DAT tracks by Prince.

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Prince: The Undertaker 6.25

eyelights: Prince’s shredding.
eyesores: the concurrent “storyline”. its lack of hooks. its low budget, home video quality.

“Don’t let the devil make U dance with the undertaker.”

I’m a longtime Prince fan. Of all artists, Prince is the one I have the most CDs of, to this day – despite the fact that much of his music in recent years has not been available through traditional means of distribution (NPG Fan Club, newspapers, streaming, …etc.). A lot of his music has simply not been available to me. And yet my shelves are bursting with Prince goodness.

When I heard of Prince’s death, I can’t say that I was devastated. In fact, at first I thought it was an internet hoax. I mean, he wouldn’t have been the first person to have been declared dead by the worldwide web. I almost felt like it was karmic retribution for all his mercenary online activities, shutting down fan websites and getting even the slightest unauthorized bit taken down.

Even something as mundane as a picture or fan art.

When it was finally confirmed that he had indeed passed away, I was no more shocked than I was when Bowie died; much like the Space Oddity, who had had health issues since 2004, Prince had clearly not been well for a long time: He’d had some trouble with his hips for ages (when was the last time anyone saw him do the split?) and he had been looking fairly sickly for a couple of years.

And that’s not even taking into account the recent health scare that involved his plane’s emergency landing.

So I had already been mentally prepared; Prince was not doing well and his death wasn’t at all shocking to me. But it didn’t change the fact that I dug up all of my Prince albums, compilations and maxi singles and proceeded to make myself a Prince megamix. Although I’ve been less than enthused by his musical output since ‘Emancipation’, he’d recently released ‘HitnRun Phase One’ on CD.

And it was so, SO good – his best in two decades. So I was eager to take a look back.

That also meant looking at video. A close friend of mine had never seen ‘Purple Rain‘, so she indulged me and watched it with me one night. Although I expected her to loathe the film’s cheesy ’80s-ness, she was captivated by the musical performances an overall vibe. Rightly so: Prince and company (Revolution/The Time/Apollonia 6) were smoking hot – it’s hard not to groove along with them.

So we proceeded to check out ‘The Undertaker’.

‘The Undertaker’ is a rare video that Prince released in 1994. I still remember discovering that it was only available in NTSC format (which we use in North America, vs PAL in Europe) on a japanese laserdisc at a hefty price coming close to 100$. I knew nothing about it, but wanted it because I was deeply into Prince at the time. But I just couldn’t afford it. I’ve regretted it ever since.

Thankfully, the video, which was never re-released on VHS or DVD (and good luck finding that laserdisc now!), has been distributed online by eager fans who want every piece of their idol to be heard and seen. And I was fortunate enough to track down a hybrid copy that includes both versions of the same video – which, for some reason, swapped a studio track of “Dolphin” with a live one.

My friend and I were set to watch one of the rarest Prince concerts ever recorded!

We had no idea what hit us: ‘The Undertaker’ has a low budget DIY home video quality to it that was most unexpected, and it begins with black and white footage of some girl (Vanessa Marcil) going into a building and asking a security guard to use the phone. She calls her boyfriend/lover Victor and pleads for his forgiveness. Failing to assuage him, she decides to take an overdose of pills.

The rest of ‘The Undertaker’ finds her reacting to the drugs and eventually making it through her delirium.

So where does Prince come in, exactly? In her delirium, she is seeing and hearing Prince perform a few songs with his band, consisting of Sonny T on bass and Michael B on drums. It’s a rudimentary affair: Unfortunately, for all her drug-taking, her delirium isn’t especially fantastical – the performance is set in a small studio and it’s a fairly static one, with Prince just standing there.

1. The Ride: This is a track that was later released in studio form on the ‘Crystal Ball’ compilation. Here it turns into a nearly-11 minute jam (if one includes the opening noodling that backs Vanessa Marcil’s introduction). It’s a simple blues jam that features a lot of guitar shredding over a simple backing groove. 7.75

2. Poorgoo: This is a repetitive blues number that features silly lyrics and is sort of dull – with the exception of Prince’s shredding. 4.5

3. Honky Tonk Women: Prince’s take on the Rolling Stones’ classic is actually intriguing. He starts it with shredding (a recurring aspect of the performance) and slows it down, which sort of takes away from the original punch – except that the musicianship is much stronger and his falsetto adds a nice flavour to it. 7.0

4. Bambi: This is an excellent rendition of his own classic (from his 1979 self-titled album), though it’s a bit raw. Changing things up slightly, Prince is seen doing an extended solo on a platform above Michael B. 7.75

5. Zannalee (Prelude): Taken from “Zannalee” from his ‘Chaos and Disorder’ album, it’s really just a guitar solo that abruptly ends less than a minute in. It felt kind of pointless to me. 4.0

6. The Undertaker: This is a bass-driven number that begins with Prince saying “Sonny, shake something”. It doesn’t have much structure, but it’s an excellent 10-minute jam. 7.5

7 Dolphin: This one’s unusual because there are two versions, depending on which edition of the video that you get:

  • The so-called “Prince version” of this video serves up a loose version the ‘The Gold Experience’ track, with trippy visuals that wouldn’t have been out of place in ‘Woodstock’ and an extended outro. 7.25
  • The so-called “o{+> version” of this video is a studio version that sounds thinner than the official album cut. The video is also edited differently, with alternate and fewer trippy visuals. 7.0

One can’t help but see this as a sign of utter self-indulgence on Prince’s part: He wanted to be seen as a guitar player and this video showed him shred from start to finish – but not much else. It’s funny, because he decided to focus on his guitar-based music just as the genre was dying. Lord knows why. In any event, this makeshift Woodstock throwback production wasn’t exciting.

To make matters worse, watching Marcil was annoying as hell: Half of the picture was a blend of her and Prince; it was difficult to focus on either. The fact that what she was doing (swaying to the music, wandering about, …etc.) was mundane didn’t help. And when she actually had lines to say, during the intro and outro bits, her delivery was AWFUL – nearly as much as the dialogues.

Oh boy, was it bad.

And there’s worse: During “The Ride”, Marcil is seen bending over the side of a couch she’d been lying on to… wait for it… expel the pills she’d taken. Now, to ensure that this was abundantly clear, whoever the filmmaker was decided that we should hear her throw up. So, yes, get this: The audio on Prince’s performance cuts out and all we can hear is the sound of her vomiting on the floor.

WTF!

It’s become a running joke for my friend and I; we were so stunned by this ridiculous insert that it was all we could talk about afterwards. And that’s probably all I’ll ever take out of ‘The Undertaker’. Yes, Prince can shred. We all know that. But watching him jack off his damned guitar in what looked like an impromptu jam is not especially memorable. It sounds good, but it looks a bit silly.

Seriously, I’m not so sure that I would have been pleased to pay 100$ for this. In fact I’m sure that it would have killed my fascination with Prince at the time. I mean, I’m glad that I finally saw it, but Prince would spend the next few years (coincidentally enough, the post-Warner Bros. years) with little or no quality control, releasing just about anything. And not all of it was prime cut.

‘The Undertaker’ certainly isn’t.

Date of viewing: May 6, 2016

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