Absent its jaw-dropping stage performances, Purple Rain is a weak film. And yet, there is something about the stilted drama of its narrative that elevates those stage performances, giving Purple Rain the peculiar distinction of being stronger for the inclusion of its weakest moments. Its otherwise clunky character development is lent a certain cohesiveness when expressed musically. The unconvincing relationships and turmoil established in various poorly-staged, non-musical moments somehow manage to make the already-amazing songs even more amazing (to say nothing of Prince and the Revolution’s incredible showmanship).
It’s therefore unsurprising that Prince’s cinematic followup, Under the Cherry Moon, suffers greatly for its absence of musical performances. There are no jaw-dropping moments to make the rest of it worth sitting through, and it solidifies the disappointing reality that Prince’s peerless virtuosity as a musician cast a harsh shadow not only on his limitations as an actor, but also as a writer and director.
And so, especially after the spectacular triumph that is his concert film Sign o’ the Times, which follows Cherry Moon, there was reason to hope that Graffiti Bridge’s veneration of the classic Hollywood musical would make it a worthy sequel to Purple Rain. Alas, it is not.
There is plenty of blame to go around: its incoherent Shakespearean spirituality; the smoothed-over urban grit of its soundstages; its paper-thin characters, most of whom are superfluous. But Graffiti Bridge’s failure ultimately comes down to the music, whose new jack swing leanings position Prince for the first time as a pop passenger rather than the pop driver. The performances are generally more workmanlike than committed, shot with the hokiest available MTV aesthetics, and several of them – Tevin Campbell’s, George Clinton’s, Mavis Staples’ – have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s a far cry from Purple Rain’s memorable and singularly earth-shaking statement.