Long before Prince (way too) prematurely crossed the mythical Rainbow Bridge, he crossed another bridge — specifically, Graffiti Bridge. And while this 1990 sequel to Purple Rain isn’t remembered all that fondly by many and frankly showcases His Royal Badness at his most self-indulgent, it’s far from a bad flick, features plenty of well-staged, extremely-high-energy song and dance numbers, and provides an interesting glimpse into the spiritual awakening he was going through that would go on to inform so much of the rest of his life and career.
Originally conceived of by Prince (who wrote and directed it) as a co-starring vehicle for himself and then-girlfriend Kim Basinger, their break-up necessitated a quick bit of re-casting and, I’m guessing, resulted in a budget-and-resources trim-down from Warner Brothers, but who are we kidding — given the film’s navel-gazing premise and heavy focus on music over story it was probably never going to be getting much studio promotional muscle behind it, and there’s really not much actual need for anything beyond a few sound stages (which were set up at Paisley Park) and a couple afternoons of location filming to get something like this “in the can.” Prince was a notorious perfectionist when it came to his live performances and as a director he obviously lavished much more care and attention on the “club” segments of this film than anything that took place outside of them, but all of it flows together reasonably well to create an admittedly simplistic “love is God and God is love” (to borrow some lyrics from “Anna Stesia”) message that, in a pinch, works as a sort of shorthand description of the Purple One’s spiritual outlook.
First, though, he’s gotta go through the darkness to reach the light. At the start of the film, Prince (reprising his role as “The Kid”) is the successful owner of a club called Glam Slam, but the recent passing of his father sees him in a decidedly melancholy mood, brooding and writing letters to dear departed dad from under our titular graffiti bridge. His big rival from last time around (Morris Day reprising his role as — well, himself) is still a persistent thorn in his side, though , and runs a club of his own called Pandemonium (with the able assistance of ever-present sidekick Jerome Benton). Things finally boil to a head in a fairly bog-standard Prince-Day confrontation, and the two finally decide to settle their differences once and for all by seeing who can write the best song — the winner gets control of both clubs, the loser walks away with his tail between his legs.
Obviously, The Kid could use some inspiration at this point — and fortunately for him, a healthy dose of it comes his way when he meets a lovely young poet named Aura (Ingrid “where-is-she-now-anyway?” Chavez), who opens him up to the beauty of life, the truth of universal love, all that good stuff. Much of their romance is, in fairness, rather cringe-worthy in its one-dimensional simplicity, and both Prince and Chavez are less than polished actors, but there’s an earnestness to it all that’s reasonably charming even as it insults your intelligence.
Threadbare as that plot admittedly is, it’s really not the reason you’re watching a film like this, anyway, though, and Prince wisely spends well over half his flick’s 90-minute runtime on infectious grooves. Most are courtesy of him and his own band, of course, but The Time are showcased for a couple of numbers, and Mavis Staples, George Clinton, and then-child-prodigy Tevin Campbell all get in on the act, as well. It probably won’t surprise you in the least to know that everyone’s terrific and that Graffiti Bridge is worth seeing at least once for the music alone. Heck, any movie that gave us “Thieves In The Temple” has at least something going for it, right?
It can’t all be good times, though, and just when The Kid seems to be reaching some sort of zenith in the happiness department, Aura meets with a tragic and unexpected fate that a)shakes our hero to his core and plunges him back into somber introspection all over again, and b)relegates her entire character to being nothing more than a plot contrivance to get Prince from “Point A” to “Point B,” spiritually-speaking — oh, and to win him Morris Day’s nightclub.
This time, you see, his journey inward in different, because the love he and Aura shared showed him that the truth is one and all is truth and — shit, I dunno. But he channels his grief into an incredible song called “Still Stand For All Time,” which he uses to absolutely blow Morris out of the water in their little contest and essentially take over the entire Minneapolis music scene. The end.
Obviously, for a movie that fancied itself as being some sort of vessel for enlightenment and awakening, some of the messaging here is rather dubious, and its treatment of women is both shoddy and offensive. Prince was many things but subtle usually wasn’t one of them, and despite the fact that actual storytelling wasn’t terribly high on the agenda here, what little there is really is quite clunky and amateurish — as is a lot of the film’s overall look, which is maybe to be expected given that most of it was essentially filmed at the star’s own house/recording compound.
And yet, for all its obvious flaws, it’s impossible for me not to have a tremendous amount of warmth for this flick (which is out of print on DVD but can still be purchased rather cheaply and is available via instant streaming on Amazon — standard-definition only — for a couple bucks), simply because what it lacks in polish and professionalism it more than makes up for in sincerity. Sure, what dialogue there is tends to be ham-fisted and melodramatic, but it has a certain lyrical quality to it, and whether by accident or design the entire production has a sort of other-worldly vibe that really can’t be faked and marks it as something that truly could have only come from one mind. Plus, as mentioned before (but it bears repeating), the musical performances are frequently beyond magnificent.
As a movie, Graffiti Bridge may leave a lot to be desired — but as a vanity project, it’s both surprisingly entertaining and absolutely fascinating.