Happy 30th Anniversary to the Sign O’ the Times concert film directed by Prince, originally released in theaters November 20, 1987.
Following on the stratospheric highs of Purple Rain (1984) and the dramatic nosedive of Under the Cherry Moon (1986), Prince’s third foray into the world of full-length features was a triumphant return to form. Giving people more Rain, less Moon, Sign O’ the Times is, for all intents and purposes, a concert film tied together with a series of loose narrative segues.
Initially filmed during Prince’s sold out European Tour in support of his amazing double album of the same name, filming was shifted to his Paisley Park creative complex after Prince deemed footage that was shot in Rotterdam and Antwerp unusable, as it failed to capture the energy and excitement he was going for. With the set transported to Paisley Park, the concert was reshot and expanded to include dramatic segues. Using the audio recorded in Holland, Prince and the band expertly lip-synched their way through the concert without losing any of the performance vitality and excitement.
Built around the loose narrative of Prince kinda-sorta-maybe-not-quite falling for and rescuing damsel in half-dress, Cat—the Purple One’s latest muse at the time—the movie confused audiences and quite a few critics upon its initial release. Was it a concert film? Was it a visual album? Just what was it? And those expecting a Purple Rain sequel or “Greatest Hits” live performance would be sadly disappointed.
What Sign O’ the Times does deliver is a high-energy, captivating representation of Prince’s magnum opus of a double album. It’s a visual feast and a permanent reminder of why Prince was one of the greatest live performers ever to grace the stage.
The film opens by introducing us to Cat (Glover), an empowered sexual imp who is negotiating the demands of her relationship with commitment-phobic Brooks. This loose plot point will provide the spine for the dramatic vignettes as Cat endures the ups and downs of their relationship against the backdrop of the music of Sign O’ the Times.
Loosely following the sequence of the album, the film proper begins with a raw and blistering retelling of the title track. As a solo musician, Prince commands the stage while Cat does her best physical interpretation of the lyrics. This stark contrast on a set design that will bring the bustling seedy Uptown album setting to life in all its neon glory, underscores the doomsday landscape the lyrics create. Kicking things up a notch, the remaining band members join Prince on stage as a drum line to add some extra punch to the coda.
From a stark and bleak beginning, the show turns Technicolor as the band kicks into an invigorated performance of “Play in the Sunshine.” With an apricot and peach color scheme, the show exudes a radiance that is joyous and playful. Prince himself has the energy of a performer at his peak and gives the energizer bunny a run for his money as he dances, prances and preens all over the multilayered stage.
With the only nod to his back catalogue, Prince briefly teases “Little Red Corvette” before abruptly switching gears to the ultimate jam of “Housequake.” Packing extra punch as a live track, “Housequake” is the epitome of Prince with flourishes of funk, rock, and jazz all in one unstoppable floor stomper.
Sadly bypassing “The Ballad of Dorothy Parker” and “Starfish and Coffee” (two of the album’s standouts), Prince slows things down as he croons the seductive “Slow Love” that has more raw sexuality to it in its live rendition.
The electrifying performance of “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” continues the narrative against one of the movie’s standout performances by Prince and the band that just lights up the screen. Along with “Forever in My Life,” which features Prince and band in a stripped-down call-and-response, the song perfectly captures the excitement and (recreated) spontaneity of a Prince concert. It’s these set pieces that really elevate Sign O’ the Times from being just another concert movie into a truly visual work of art.
Whilst Prince has always surrounded himself with great musicians, the band assembled for Sign O’ the Times is second to none. This is best exemplified by the rousing cover of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” culminating in a full force drum solo by the always impressive Sheila E.
Strangely enough, the only moment when the momentum of the live show atmosphere dies down is in the somewhat forced segue into what would become the video for “U Got the Look” featuring Sheena Easton. Despite its “live show” depiction, the inclusion of the promo clip pulls you out of the actual concert experience and has a disruptive dullness to it due to multiple cuts and overly forced performance.
Thankfully, Prince draws you back in with a visually stunning depiction of the sultry-funk of “If I Was Ur Girlfriend” that steams up the screen before launching into the rousing “Forever in My Life.”
Closing out the film with the frenetic “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” that sees Shelia E. and Prince trade roles mid-song (and also features the only real noticeable moments of poor lip-synching by Prince) and the soulful spiritual of “The Cross,” Prince reaffirms his peerless ability as master musician and singer-songwriter.
Directed by Prince (and an uncredited Albert Magnoli of Purple Rain fame) Sign O’ the Times shows an artist in total control of his visual depiction. For all the mystery and shyness that seemed to surround Prince, on stage was where he truly came into his own. So it’s fitting that he is in the control seat in showcasing this live performance and presenting it to the world.
Managing to capture the full excitement of a live show is always a tricky task, but Sign O’ the Times does it effortlessly. Whether you’re a fan of Prince or not, it’s a master class in live show theatrics and performance. And 30 years later, Sign O’ the Times remains one of the greatest concert films of all time.
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