In recent days I’ve emerged from my funk by feeling the funk — leave it to Prince to have provided his fans with the one sure-fire way of getting over his death which is, of course, by getting into his music. He wouldn’t want us to feel too blue for too long, after all — he’d rather have us all feeling decidedly purple. And what better way to not only remember, but celebrate, his extraordinary life than by witnessing the magic he created at the very height of his powers?
Granted, one could argue that said “height” lasted for decades, but for my money the best filmed record of it came in 1987 with the release of his flat-out monumental concert movie, Sign “O” The Times, directed (with a considerable amount of flair and confidence, I might add) by Prince himself with uncredited assistance from his former manager/business partner (and the guy behind the camera on Purple Rain), Albert Magnoli. We all know, of course, that His Royal Badness was the most gifted musician of at least the last century, but his super-human skills in the studio were arguably eclipsed by his skills on the stage, and if there’s one area where Prince may actually be underappreciated, it’s as a showman. Indeed, one critic remarked that in this flick, he “makes Michael Jackson look like he’s nailed to the floor,” and if anything, that’s putting it mildly.
Sign “O” The Times showcases Prince in what anyone who’s seen him perform live would agree to be his natural element — in front of a rapturously transfixed audience (at the Rotterdam Music Hall in the Netherlands, to be precise) that he is in absolute command of from the start of the evening to the end. A recent Slate piece proclaimed this to be the single-greatest concert film of all time (narrowly beating out Talking Heads’ Jonathan Demme-directed Stop Making Sense), and it’s easy to see why — the sheer energy that radiates from every frame ins’t just infectious, it’s downright transcendent, and the ease with which the star of the show is able to channel raw, cosmic power both into and through everything he’s doing is flat-out unnerving at times in its sheer brilliance.
The double- LP (of the same name) that 11 of the 13 songs featured in this film originally appeared on is, of course, one of Prince’s very best (Spin ranked it as the second-best album of its decade), but was also one of his most intensely personal works in terms of its construction and execution, given that he not only wrote, arranged, and produced every song on it as was his custom, but played just about all of the instruments, as well. It’s about as “solo” as solo albums can get, in other words, but don’t think for a minute that the band he toured with to promote it wasn’t up to the task of translating that material in a stage setting, because damn — the assemblage of “A-list” talent that Prince had with him on this tour was a veritable “murderer’s row” of musicians, dancers, back-up vocalists, and rappers.
Roll call : Sheila E. Dr. Fink. Levi Seacer Jr. Atlanta Bliss. Cat Glover. Dr. Fink. Wally Safford. Eric Leeds. Boni Boyer. Miko Weaver. Gregory Allen Brooks. Sheen Easton even turns up in the video for “U Got The Look” that marks the film’s only “non-live” performance. All in all, a beyond- impressive list of names, to be sure, each supremely gifted in their own way.
Let’s not kid ourselves, though : it’s my hometown’s favorite son who is front and center here at all times, a whirling dervish of hyper-kinetic dancing, singing, and guitar playing that fucking destroys everything in his path — most notably anyone’s will to resist. Prince’s stagecraft in Sign “O” The Times is something beyond merely “undeniable” or “arresting” — it’s well and truly magical. It’s not a “superstar” performance, it’s a supernova performance, and frankly you could stand inside of an industrial blast furnace and probably be exposed to less pure heat than you are here.
Perhaps the most amazing fact to consider about it all, though, is simply this : Prince did this sort of thing all the time. I was lucky enough to see him in concert four times over the course of my unworthy existence, and every show was literally mind-boggling in its scope. Not so much for its high production values — although they were always second-to-none — but for its jaw-dropping musical bravado and the incomparable power of the electricity coursing through the veins of both its performers (particularly the master of ceremonies, of course) and its stunned, transformed onlookers. Even the occasional mis-step (like the one in this film that sees Prince rip Cat’s skirt off in a manner more lecherous and perhaps even violent than it is overtly sexual) is quickly recovered from when the Purple One and his band were really “feeling it” — and damn if they’re not “feeling it” to the utmost in Sign “O” The Times. For that matter, damn if they weren’t “feeling it” almost every single time they performed.
Unfortunately, this hour-and-a-half of concert movie super-perfection is pretty darn hard to come by these days. I was lucky enough to see it in the theater (the old Skyway in downtown Minneapolis, to be precise) when it came out and even luckier to score a used VHS copy for a buck from the second-hand thrift store I used to manage, but it’s never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in the US and from what I understand most of the various foreign Blus that are available go for pretty high prices. Let’s hope that this situation is corrected in the very near future, because Prince fans the world over — particularly those never fortunate enough to see him perform in person — absolutely deserve to be able to see this. Elvis may have been the “King of Rock” and MJ may have been the “King of Pop,” but Sign “O” The Times is proof positive that Prince was a higher class of musical royalty unto himself.