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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Sign' Tries to Bridge the '60s and '80s

November 20, 1987|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

Prince's "Sign O' the Times" (selected theaters), which he shot during his recent European tour, is a fervent, seductive concert film. But it's also weirdly split.

The music is excellent throughout--a tantalizingly eclectic blend of funk, hard rock, chansons and be-bop that hits practically every note it tries for. The songs soar and stretch, show daring, wit, lush perversity and formidable reach. When a rock star has his group jam on Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time" and sticks in quotations from Billy Strayhorn's "Take the A Train"--as Prince does here--you know he's gaining in artistic breadth and bravura.

But there's another side to the movie, the second that Prince has directed. It's a split that shows in the persona of the star himself. There's his patented mixture of hip-grinding sexuality and a teasingly fragile surface: silken clothes on a smooth, impudent chest. Prince gazes at the camera, black curls glistening, face twisted into a wry, liquid-eyed smirk. His image seems to breathe both delicacy and sensuality.

That's an interesting mixture--perfect for the '60s, more askew in the harder-grained '80s, the age of macho- creepo. In the ads, "Sign O' the Times," the "O"' is replaced with a peace symbol--ubiquitous icon of the Beatles Age--and that image goes against the grain too. But charmingly.

In the much-maligned "Under the Cherry Moon," Prince--through the rubble of a failed film--actually showed himself a promising first-time director. Trying to recreate the visual style of early '60s arthouse films--by Fellini, Antonioni, Demy, Truffaut--and to meld it somehow with the tones and textures of American screwball romantic comedy, he bit off something unchewable. But the fact that he tried a chew like that was interesting; it revealed him as someone fascinated with artistic risk.

"Sign O' the Times" shows him seemingly as much influenced by Martin Scorsese and "The Last Waltz"--with its smokey, absolute lyricism--as he was by Fellini and Dick Lester in "Under the Cherry Moon." And since the movie is predominantly concert footage of his stage show, he's in greater control here; singer-composer Prince is at the peak of his form.

Following the lead of "Last Waltz" and Jonathan Demme's "Stop Making Sense," he plays up the drama of the band's interplay. We see it in the little Gallic set-pieces that he's fashioned against his film noir , sleazy, night-life stage set--and in the ongoing sparks shooting between the players, whooshing up intensely among Prince, dancer Cat and drummer Sheila E. Sheila, in torrid hot pants, is shown, wrenchingly, in overhead camera angles that make her look like a mix of Buddy Rich and Vanity. Lead dancer Cat slinks through a series of lithe explosions, electricity under fur.

The music--mostly from concerts in Rotterdam and Antwerp--is lyrical and jaggedly exciting. Numbers like "Slow Love" and the title song seethe with power; only the interpolated rock video with Sheena Easton seems a mistake, breaking the concert's rhythm. At the end, when Prince tries to fuse the imagery of romantic sensuality and Christian idealism in "The Cross," he's surprisingly successful. It's a blazing climax.

So, as a concert film, judged from the music, "Sign O' the Times" (MPAA-rated: PG-13, for language and sexual innuendo) is near the top. As a movie--carrying inside it the embryo of other movies--it's not fully satisfying. But you sense it could be; however he stumbles, Prince gives you the impression he'll always, catlike, leap back.

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