Under the Cherry Moon (1986)
Intended as a follow-up to the smash hit star vehicle Purple Rain (1984), Under the Cherry Moon has instead long been regarded as a nadir of achievement for the late, great pop star Prince. A bomb upon release and dismissed as a vanity project helplessly enslaved to Prince’s self-worship, Under the Cherry Moon is generally better remembered for the soundtrack album it spawned. Entitled, via Prince’s customary deflecting oddness, Parade, that album is quite possibly his greatest and also one of his most eccentric. It was a sharp left turn from the epic pop of Purple Rain’s soundtrack and a ruthless dissection of the usual presumptions that a pop headliner must turn towards pomposity, presenting instead a blend of stripped-down mid-‘80s funk with a spacy psychedelic gloss, littered with mixed-out orchestral backings, fragmented carnivale rhythms, and looping melody lines. The album is anchored by the deathless classic “Kiss,” which somehow builds from a glassy synthesiser shimmy and fiddle-with-yourself funk guitar to a crescendo of frustrated ecstatics and erogenous manifesto. Under the Cherry Moon’s production saw director Mary Lambert fired, and Prince himself stepped into the breach to helm the result, working with a screenplay by future Prince of Tides (1991) and Seven Years in Tibet (1997) scribe Becky Johnston (Lambert herself would land on her feet, sort-of, with Pet Semetary, 1990). Under the Cherry Moon stands as a self-conscious tribute to a retro brand of moviemaking, mimicking the look, feel, and story themes of a mid-1930s screwball farce, borrowing ideas from the likes of Erich Von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives (1922), Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932), Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise (1933) and Ninotchka (1939), and Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959).
But Cherry Moon actually feels very much like a product of its own time. References to bygone icons of stardom and styles were rife in ‘80s pop music, and some stars of the time had definably cinematic ambitions. Not for nothing would Madonna spend half of “Vogue” rattling off the names of her favourite movie stars and get David Fincher to remake Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) in the video for "Express Yourself," whilst Michael Jackson was hiring John Landis and Martin Scorsese to turn his music videos into events. This pop-art-flavoured trend had also inflected some moviemaking of the early ‘80s, with films like Walter Hill’s Streets of Fire (1984) and Julien Temple’s Absolute Beginners (1986), and well as several of the films Francis Coppola produced and directed around this time, resulting in movies that seemed to want to be as much filmic equivalents of illustrated coffee table books filled with glossy encapsulations of stylistic ideas as narratives. Under the Cherry Moon feels connected with these, particularly thanks to Michael Ballhaus’s black-and-white photography and the blurred sense of era apparent in the film, where the cars and tech are ‘80s but the mood is Jazz Age and the fashions a blend of the two. Cherry Moon also notably avoids becoming a plain and simple musical, for the most part relegating Parade’s music to the soundtrack. Most took this as a sign Prince wanted to present himself as a bona fide movie star who could claim that status with presence alone. And yet a far more impish and impudent quality colours his performance and his approach to the film, which superficially reproduces the beats of all those old movies he loves whilst also trying to fill in some of their blanks and examine their euphemisms, cutting across any intentions he had of simply presenting himself as a perfect screen icon.
The plot is extremely simple: Christopher Tracy (Prince) and his wingman Tricky (Jerome Benton) are musicians from Miami who have found a niche on the Cote d’Azur as casino performers who supplement their income through Christopher’s appeal as a gigolo. The opening scene depicts Christopher plying both his trades as he plays piano and flirts outrageously with beautiful divorcee Mrs Wellington (Francesca Annis), receiving advice and cues all the while from the waitresses who double as his helpmates and stage managers. Meanwhile shipping heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas) is celebrating her 21st birthday, and thanks to his connection to Mrs Wellington Christopher and Tricky insinuate themselves into the party with the ambition of one of them seducing Mary and obtaining some slice of her fortune. Mary’s cynically protective father Isaac (Steven Berkoff) is arranging for her marriage to an American princeling (who, when heard over the phone, sounds like Tony Curtis’s impression of Cary Grant), a supposedly safe and decent match that is actually intended to further Isaac’s business interests. Mary herself shows signs of being a live wire, flashing her birthday guests (“How do you like my birthday suit? I designed it myself!”) and settling down to thrash out a groove on the party band’s drums. Christopher is genuinely fascinated and instead of simply sweeping her off her feet with practised moves he and Mary bicker when they actually meet, and she has him and Tricky thrown out. Mary at first seems to enjoy Tricky’s charms more than Christopher’s, but then Mary and Christopher’s verbal sparring gives way, of course, to fierce amour, shaking the alliance of the two men.
Prince undoubtedly comes across like the lord of all wankers in Cherry Moon. But that was his shtick, his willingness to strike the postures and annex spaces in the cultural landscape others were (and mostly still are) terrified to touch, with fearless, good-humoured aplomb. One unmistakable aspect of this film in comparison to Purple Rain is that where Prince buried his fascination with and comfort within camp as an aesthetic value in that movie to make himself a plainly heterosexual swashbuckler, here he embraces it wholeheartedly, particularly in his scenes with Benton. Prince loved poking this particular cultural ant nest, and if made a few years later Cherry Moon would feel like a lance aimed right at the “no homo” squeamishness in some corners of hip-hop. Not that Christopher and Tricky are actually, explicitly defined as a couple, but Prince repeatedly makes sport of ambiguity, as when Tricky catches Christopher after tripping and puckers up to him with mocking affection. One target here, apart from simple comic value, is leading the audience into some acknowledgement of the slightly homoerotic crackle that often seemed to underlie many a knockabout pairing of pals in classic Hollywood films, and perhaps even the source of that figuration, in the constant motif of masculine love Leslie Fielder noted in the heart of the American novel. Either way, Prince’s active, raging queering of the screwball style seems to have been one of the chief offences of this film.
Prince’s understanding of the retro mode he’s improvising on here meanwhile begins to take on the quality of a reverse-minstrel act, overtly making sport of the usual signifiers of Hollywood and contextualising his anarchic take on sexual and social mores as a commonplace state for social outsiders, rather than a by-product of effete aristocratic mores: down in the boondocks, he clearly signals, all the rules cease to apply and there’s just whatever gets you through the night. Meanwhile Prince happily sexualises himself to a degree that probably provoked most of the film’s reputed hilarity as he swans about in midriff-baring silk pantsuits that make him look like the missing link between Carmen Miranda and Annie Hall. The core romantic drama strains to recreate the crackling combative verve of classic screwball, but that proves hard when the brand of verbally dexterous and demanding wit those films wielded, with their well-oiled scripts by arch-professionals, is here substituted for hand-me-down mimicry. The repartee between Prince and Scott Thomas too often sounds rather juvenile and try-hard (“I go out with people my own age. Special people. And they don’t wear wedding rings.” “Then they must be wearing diapers!”). Prince’s tendency to push himself and other performers towards delivering their lines in camped-up quotation marks is at odds with the restrained poise screwball requires, where the tension usually lies between the lack of physical motion and the deftness of fencing with dialogue.
Nonetheless Scott Thomas, who was making her film debut as a late ring-in replacing Prince’s girlfriend of the time, Susannah Melvoin, brings coltish young-Tory spunk to her role, which demands she play different brands of fantasy throughout the film -- sometimes her heavy-lidded eyes yaw wide in perfect encapsulation of Prince’s jokey ideal of drag chic, at other points she plays the racy rich girl who doesn’t give a shit what you think probably originally intended by Lambert and Johnston, and then again she becomes the tremulous love object demanded by generic ritual. The film has a void at its centre when all is said and done, a void that should have been filled by musical performance. Such sequences would have given it a sensibility it otherwise lacks, and justified the frivolity of the script with counterpoints of house-shaking pop. Notably, the film’s best moments all edge into musical territory, which clearly spark the performer’s joy in physical movement and the acts of making and creating. The witty opening sequence of flirtation by piano. Mary’s birthday breakbeat solo. A dance between Christopher and Mary on a balcony overlooking the sun-dappled Mediterranean, the suffused light, diaphanous silk, and double-exposed images all swirling with gossamer beauty and achieving a perfervid romantic note (Ballhaus’s work here at its best; he also throws in a few of the lunging rack shots his work with Scorsese is famous for). An all-too-brief moment when Christopher decides to shake up a restaurant full of toffs by staging an impromptu musical number, climbing on a table and blasting out “Girls & Boys” and getting everyone into the groove except for Berkoff’s Isaac, who stands glowering like a shaven-headed golem in the midst of revelry.
Moreover, Prince shows signs of being able to render his slippery approach to rhythm in cinematic terms, particularly in the sequence of Mary’s birthday party, which commences with an iris shot widening into a helicopter-filmed seaside vista, underscored by a chanting crowd, before zeroing in for alternations of tableaux vivant littered with Greek chorus-like characters, a syncopated utilisation of sounds and images and words that legitimately recalls the kinds of musical-theatrical-cinematic effects classic filmmakers trying expand early sound film's scope like Mamoulian and Orson Welles were fond of. This cries to then segue into a proper song-and-dance number for “Kiss” or something, but there’s no climax. The absence of such sequences leaves the film strangely ballasted, struggling to work out its priorities with underdeveloped characters and disjointed story motifs – particularly when it comes to wasted Annis and Emmanuelle Sallet as Tricky’s girlfriend Katy, who’s also their hotel landlady, toe-tattooing for the bill to be paid up even as she's caught making out with Tricky under the front desk. The story finally reaches for a zone of high romanticism where true love demolishes boundaries and can be a cause worth dying for, a zone that Prince seems to both yearn to enter but never quite believe in. The finale retains this contradiction, as it builds to tragedy as far as Christopher and Mary’s romance goes but undercuts it with Tricky, seen in an epilogue now a wealthy apartment manager in Miami backed by Mary, giving the film a comic diminuendo when Tricky reminds Katy that now it’s her time to pay up the rent. Only under the closing credits does Prince offer a fantasy consummation as Christopher sings to his lady love from heaven, suddenly blooming into smudgy Technicolor for a music video with the Revolution giving righteous backing: now there's a band of angels I can get behind. It's like a gentleman rake and wounded romantic-trending-cynic's take on the same pop lover's myth James Cameron would offer completely straight-faced a decade later with Titanic (1997). At its least, Under the Cherry Moon feels like a limp flag that just can’t catch the wind, but it’s certainly not the wretchedly bad waste product it’s often dismissed as, and at its best, Cherry Moon does conjure a mood of freewheeling levity. The film's most genuine, intriguing, and justifying quality is that it feels like an actual product of Prince’s contradictory imagination and creativity, even if it’s only very occasionally touched with any hue of his best ability.