In ’81 he accessorized his trench coat with high heels and bikini briefs. In ’84 that coat got dandified, high-collared and famously purple, Edwardian formalwear over a frilled tuxedo shirt over that wicked slick of chest hair. It was the getup of a perv or a president, a look that by now could only be more familiar if it had been minted onto money.
In one way the trench coat ensemble he debuted in 1987 might be more audacious still. Prince opens his concert film Sign o’ the Times in black leather, which is no shock. But above the coat he’s genteelly bespectacled, and underneath it he’s in something like an orange-sherbet pantsuit, his top a box-cut, blouselike jacket Katharine Hepburn might have worn, complete with a black tuft of hankie sewn to the pocket. It’s refined, even tasteful, perhaps a sign that he wanted us to see him as an artist rather than an image. For the first time in his on-video life, Prince doesn’t look like he’s wearing a costume.
Soon, though, he doffs the coat and jacket to strut about in the first of several impossible chest-bearing leotardish sex-onesies. Later, he slinks about in a fluffy fur, crooning the immortal “If I Was Your Girlfriend.” He was still Prince, after all — just a Prince striving to subordinate the outlandish to his artistry.
That all suits the double LP feast that the Sign o’ the Times film honors. The record plays like some other great’s cherry-picked, career-spanning box set. He’d never before composed with such audacity, flouted genre with such coherence, sung with such resonance, written lyrics with such depth. But the pop world prefers horndog provocateurs to polymath geniuses, and the only cut to strike big with crossover radio was “U Got the Look,” the chintziest and dirtiest, the one that reveals itself fully on first listen.
Purple Rain notwithstanding, masterpieces tend to take some effort on the part of the audience. The Sign o’ the Times album is a lot to wrap a brain around, a day-filling showcase for all his musical selves — balladeer, soul singer, big-beat minimalist, rock craftsman, one-man funk band, fussy arranger, master of complex curios and amphibious come-ons. The only skill of his that’s missing: that ability to straddle the zeitgeist and hump it until it gets off, too.
For Prince, Sign o’ the Times was a disappointment. He had imagined it as a triple album to be titled Crystal Ball, played by him and the Revolution and including a suite’s worth of tracks sung by Camille, a female identity he had experimented with. It wound up a (mostly) solo double, his greatest achievement in DIY recording. Key song “Forever in My Life” promised a lifelong commitment not unrelated to what this sprawling, restless album itself demands and rewards.
Like all the best Prince projects, both Signs o’ the Times — the film and the LP — are rich with contradictions. The most memorable groove on this genius-alone-in-the-studio record comes on a live number cut with the Revolution. The extended highlight of the full-band concert movie, meanwhile, hits when the musicians put down their instruments to clap and sing with him over a recording of his homemade groove. That’s “Forever in My Life,” a guitar gospel stomper, as moving a marriage song as you’ll ever hear. But in the film Prince — now wearing a bedazzled jean jacket! — complicates the sentiment by interpolating lines from “It,” another Sign track, one of his best obsessive concupiscent miniatures: “I wanna do it to you all the time,” he declares, and then soon he’s shriek-singing it, his cries equal parts James Brown and Janis Joplin. The sex song is now about fidelity and the fidelity song is now about fucking. This improves them both.
The concert film often bests the LP. Prince worked fast in the studio, but in revisiting songs he’d already waxed — onstage or in remixes — he often found new possibilities. The movie band had been playing Sign o’ the Times on tour for months, and it shows. The rococo James Brown throwdown “Housequake” is thicker and twistier, tricked out with chewy new jazz chords, a Sheila E. drum breakdown, the gyrations of dancer Cat, and Prince’s own consummate splits and twirls.
The leering “Hot Thing” opens with what could be a parody of Michael Jackson if the video for “The Way You Make Me Feel” had come out just a few months earlier: A beauty hip-sways down a stark city street, drawing the attention of a catcalling star. Unlike Jackson, who settles for a kiss, Prince winds up grinding athletically with her through a chain-link fence after snatching away her tutu with his mouth — all as the band lays into brilliantly spare and sinister funk. Miko Weaver’s guitar is all neon chicken-scratch; Alan Leeds’s popcorning sax solo makes you forget he’s wearing some kind of Dungeon Master’s robes; and Prince’s own churchy keyboard intro proves there’s more than one organ on his mind.
Prince directed the film with Albert Mangoli, mostly on a Paisley Park soundstage, and they’re generous in showing off the band, the dancers, the celebratory act of creation. They emphasize light-bathed fog and dramatic silhouettes; more pressingly, they mostly focus on what you want to see just when you want to see it, a surprisingly rare trait for in-performance documentaries.
At peak moments, Prince created the sense that all of pop history had been building up to what he was doing now — and would be topped by whatever he’d dare to do next. Of course, by ’87, pop history was moving past him. Prince’s beats seemed thin compared to hip-hop, his best new rock ‘n’ roll songs had gone too bubblegum, and his lover-man soul gems had the feel of glittering throwbacks. The retro-futurist punk of 1999 stood revealed, by ’87, as an adult formalist, prince of his kingdom but not of the culture. He never again demonstrated anything like Michael Jackson’s willful momentousness or Madonna’s savviness about image — Prince had too much music in him to get hung up on making it all hit. He would reduce his name to a gender-pretzeled symbol, but he would never reduce his self to any one thing, no matter how much easier that might make it to sell him.
The fate of the Sign o’ the Times film hints at the marketplace struggles he and Warner Bros. faced. Released the same month Jackson dazzled with the easier pleasures of “The Way You Make Me Feel,” Sign o’ the Times screened in some 250 American theaters and soon vanished. To date, it’s unavailable to stream from any legal source, and it’s never seen a stateside DVD or Blu-ray release. For most people, this film, the premier document of this multitudinous talent at the height of his powers, cannot be viewed without resorting to piracy. Right now, when we need it most, that’s a travesty.
Sign o’ the Times
Directed by Prince and Albert Mangoli
More:Film and TV