Prince Rogers Nelson, the artist we always knew as Prince, even when he didn’t want to be known by that name, sadly passed away this past Thursday at the age of 57. While the circumstances of his death remain somewhat cloudy, it is sad to hear a talented artist we are all familiar with in some capacity has died, no matter the reason for his death. And while the massive outpouring of people jumping on to his post-mortem bandwagon is a little ridiculous, he was an incredible musician and his contributions to popular culture will live on long after his death in 2016.
I spend most of Thursday sick in bed, so I got a unique chance to pursue the internet and look at a lot of his greatest musical moments. The 2007 Super Bowl, the 2004 Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame induction of George Harrison, and performing at the SNL 40 celebration. But I also began to dig a little deeper, reaching way back in some moments, to Prince’s presence on the silver screen both as an actor and musical contributor. His acting is extremely limited, with one shining moment back to the year I was born, but his musical contributions are far greater and surprisingly important to some memorable movies.
It all starts with his best, and most difficult to procure, concert film while touring the last of his great albums of the Eighties.
Many of us have never seen Prince live, in-person. Sure, we’ve seen him in different videos here and there or seen his dynamic presence at the 2007 Super Bowl in Miami—my brother and sister were there! It’s another thing to experience Prince live and feel the energy along with a crowd of fans. To see his bigger-than-life personality and see his musicianship first hand is something reserved for your parents if they were adventurous and okay with massive amounts of gyrating.
The promise of capturing the same energy found in a live performance often falls well short when it is recorded and produced as a concert film. Granted, there are major exceptions; Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense and Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz are the first to spring to mind. I would submit you can add Prince’s 1987 concert film, Sign O’ The Times, to the short list of great concert films.
While it minors on the collection of Prince’s music, the double album Sign O’ The Times being the last gasp of his bombastic and poppy musical era, it majors on the explosive charisma of Prince’s live mojo and exudes passion, sensuality. It puts a capstone on the 80’s mythos of Prince. As the artist matured, his music would stray from the enormity of his personality and he would become more known for his incredible composition, musicianship, and prolific output.
4) Pretty Woman
Although it is only a moment and doesn’t actually feature Prince singing, the well-known featuring Julia Roberts singing Prince’s “Kiss” while Richard Gere, a wealthy and handsome corporate raider, talks to his lawyer on the phone, played by Jason Alexander. As Alexander’s Phil Stuckey urges Gere’s Edward Lewis to find a girl or someone to date regularly, he looks with fondness on Roberts singing loudly in the bubble bath while wearing headphones, oblivious to Edward looking on. It’s a fun little scene where Gere’s Edward starts to fully realize his fondness for the escort he had merely hired as a companion for a party. And, of course, once Roberts’ Vivian realizes Edward heard her whole song, she smiles warmly and with all the quirk and cuteness she can muster says, “Don’t ya just love Prince?”
My first introduction to Prince as a kid was through the 1989 Batman movies starring Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. I’ll never forget the suite of songs he wrote for the movie including the famous museum scene where Prince’s croons over The Joker and his henchman destroying priceless works of art. It’s the right amount of camp, humor, and senseless vandalism to make the scene memorable and, from some reason I still can’t put my finger on, Prince’s music fits like a purple, velvet glove; something Nicholson’s Joker and Prince would both be comfortable wearing.
The clearest music to screen moment I have from Batman is Prince’s “Trust” while the Joker parades down the main street of Gotham throwing the citizens money. Prince’s best Michael Jackson impression, shouting falsetto “whoos” and “ahhs”, layers The Joker’s sinister motives to expose Gotham’s greed and slander the Batman. “He’s at home, washing his tights!” I love how the Joker’s movements are timed with the music, pumping his fists as the people dance around his float. It’s a devious, scripted ruse from the Joker that ultimately will end with him trying to gas the citizens of Gotham. We want to hate the Joker so much, but it’s so hard when he is dancing to Prince and taking shots at Bruce Wayne’s laundering of the Bat Suit.
2) Happy Feet
The 2006 all-penguin animated movie was an unforeseen success when it first came out. Directed by George Miller, yes, THAT George Miller, it’s ambition and vision stood out from all the other animated movies of the year. Featuring an all-star cast of voice actors, including Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugo Weaving, and Elijah Wood. Wood plays the main penguin and outcast of the Emperor penguin community, Mumbles. He can’t sing, a hallmark of their group and a necessity to attracting a mate, but he has an odd talent no one else has; he can dance. After being cast out of the group, he meets a different group of Adelie penguins who take him in.
A touching story about love, community, and acceptance, as well as having some really fun, exciting, and unique musical numbers, Happy Feet’s standout number was the beating heart of Mumbles’ journey, “The Song of the Heart”, performed and written by Prince. It’s a soul infused, funky number capturing the spirit of the film and also being Prince at his most fun and all the cool he can muster. The song went on to win a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. It would be his biggest movie award for a song from his very first movie and the #1 spot on our list.
1) Purple Rain
As Prince’s 1984 breakout hit, Purple Rain, begins, the viewer is bombarded with images of the 80’s music scene that are right out of any nightclub David Bowie or The Purple One would have been playing in the late 70’s early 80’s. There are an oddity and sensuality to them as a provocative affront to this being anything but a cool, teenager movie to make your parents mad. Then the first words of the movie bellow, “Ladies and gentlemen, The Revolution,” introducing Prince, his band, and declaring the intentions of the movie; to announce the presence known as Prince.
Originally conceived by Prince while touring for his 1999 album, it was eventually pushed through into wider distribution by Warner Brothers through the efforts of Howard Bloom, a music industry PR legend. The whole movie, both its cinematic quality and marketing success, was carried by the rising star of Prince. People came out in droves to see Prince’s over-the-top persona, where he is known as “The Kid” in the movie, translated to the big screen. While the movie is slightly uneven, the charismatic front man of The Revolution is suited to hold the narrative steady. Interspersed between a three-fold narrative is a showcase of Prince’s wide-ranging talent and larger than life magnetism on stage. In the aforementioned opening scene, Apollonia, Prince’s co-star, is left speechless and motionless by the performance of “Let’s Get Crazy” and I felt the same glued-to-the-screen sensation. Prince was clearly a mesmerizing performer and, in 1984, at the height of “cool”.
Historically being a very polarizing film, having won an Oscar but also being nominated for two Razzie Awards, the acting chops of some of the unknowns are in question. The movie’s real genius, outside of the musical numbers, is the quieter, non-musical moments. Prince performs some powerful scenes of pathos in dealing with his alcoholic and abusive father, as well as an emotionally abusive mother, which were semi-autobiographical of his own life. Not only that, but the movie is funny and charming. Prince has a playful childishness behind his inflated ego, and the movie is a chance to see him at, perhaps, the most human most of us will see. In Purple Rain, Prince feels less like a demigod-like rock star and has a grounded quality to his genius and romance. For some of us, it could serve a useful glimpse into Prince Rogers Nelson before he had completed his metamorphosis into “The Purple One”.