Posts Tagged ‘prince’

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life —

He certainly did more than “get through,” though, didn’t he? Equal parts icon and iconoclast, superstar and outsider, there was always a sense that Prince was something other than, or at the very least apart from, the rest of humanity. Mind-bogglingly talented on a level most of us can scarcely conceive of, watching him perform a guitar solo live is the closest thing many folks will ever have to a truly cosmic experience. Surely this virtuoso energy, creativity, and freeform mastery that was flowing through him came from some otherwordly, perhaps even extradimensional, source. I mean — how else to even explain it, right?

Unless you’re from here. His home town. Minneapolis. In which case, he’s not only the most impossibly gifted musician of his generation (as well as any number of those that preceded and followed it), he’s one of us. And that’s doubly true for an Uptown kid.

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Everybody’s going Uptown — that’s where I wanna be — Uptown — set your mind free.

There’s a line in Ang Lee’s generally-reviled Taking Woodstock that’s always stuck with me, melodramatic as it might be — when Liev Schreiber’s transgender character tells the film’s young protagonist, played by Demetri Martin, to go down to the concert and “see what the center of the universe feels like.” Been there, done that, thanks to Prince. I was about 12 years old at the height of his Purple Reign, and Minneapolis was ground zero for a new sound, new style, and new sensibility that was sweeping the nation. And ground double-zero was Uptown, well known as the burgeoning mega-star’s favorite neighborhood. It’s also where I grew up. And where waiting around for a chance to see our local royalty was not just a thing to do, but a bona fide way of life for a good couple of years there. Whether you were loitering at one of the tables they used to have in front of the McDonald’s on Lagoon and Hennepin, or standing in line for tickets for that evening’s midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which played every Friday and Saturday at the Uptown Theater to packed houses for at least a decade), one way or another you were on a Prince-sighting mission — and more often than not your efforts weren’t in vain, as he’d cruise by on his purple motorcycle, no entourage in tow, just taking in the sights and sounds of his city. Yeah, we all know he put First Avenue on the map — but when he wasn’t performing or practicing or writing or producing or acting he was Uptown. It’s where he wanted to be, after all. Was it really the center of the universe? Of course not, but it sure felt that way when you were an impressionable little kid and the star of the biggest movie in the country at the time who had a string of number one hit singles to his name hung out five minutes from your house almost every weekend.

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I guess I should’ve known, by the way you parked your car sideways, that it wouldn’t last.

Here’s the thing, though — it did. Prince didn’t just have a moment, he was the moment. Even when he was tanking his career on purpose to get out of his contract with Warner Brothers, or changing his name to a symbol, or directing movies when he had no business trying to, or going bankrupt — he never totally faded from view, and still commanded the attention of any and every room he entered. At his career’s lowest ebb, there was never any sense that he needed a “comeback” so much as that he was biding his time waiting for another breakthrough — for the world to catch up to wherever he was at. From time to time it did and he’d be back at the top of the charts with a surprise multi-platinum single or album, and once Musicology cemented his place as the modern king of funk/dance/R and B/rock and roll all over again, he went from legend to “guy for whom legend is too small a word” and stayed there, on his self-made throne, arrived at in his own time via his own singular methodology, until today. He exists — and I suppose always will — as a genre unto himself. Someone whose name will immediately be linked with a sound that’s entirely his for as long as people have ears to listen with — and feet that can tap along to the beat. Go out and find me somebody who doesn’t like at least one Prince song. I dare you.

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Sometimes it snows in April.

It didn’t today, but the sentiment from that song, which Prince wrote for a dead friend, certainly applies, especially here in the Twin Cities. Hard-core fans are understandably in mourning, more casual fans are in disbelief, and even folks who hardly followed his career seem a little off. Minneapolis has a palpable sense of loss hanging over it that you can feel, and complete strangers are striking up conversation with each other about something they have in common — an event they can relate to — in a way I haven’t seen since the Twins first won the World Series back in 1987. Back then it was random high-fives and “yes!!!!!!!”s — today it’s a shared sense of sorrow that our greatest living vessel of civic pride is gone, and that maybe we didn’t even realize all he’d done for us until it was too late. Yes, his untimely passing at only 57 years of age (just a handful of weeks after the death of his former protege, Vanity) is front-page news the world over, but it takes on added weight and significance here. I met some of the most passionate Prince fans you’ll ever find anywhere when I saw him in concert in Melbourne, Australia in 2003, and I have no doubt that he’s got zealous adherents all over the globe who are devastated by today’s events, but we’re still, in many ways, a provincial backwater (“fly-over country,” as a former football coach who went on to greener pastures once said of us), and nobody let the world know we were here the way he did. And while we’ll still be here tomorrow, our favorite son won’t — and that’s the most quietly seismic happening this community has arguably ever felt.

A world without Prince is really going to suck. But it’s going to suck even more for us former Uptown kids.

Movie Poster/DVD Cover for the Director's Cut of Buddy Giovinazzo's "Life is Hot in Cracktown"

Movie Poster/DVD Cover for the Director's Cut of Buddy Giovinazzo's "Life is Hot in Cracktown"

From the very first scene, a nasty and brutal gang-rape perpetrated by a gang of drug-dealing inner-city youth, it’s obvious that writer-director Buddy Giovinazzo’s “Life is Hot in Cracktown” (based on his book of the same name) requires a very strong constitution on the part of any prospective viewer. This is ruthless, cruel, dehumanizing stuff (and for those interested, this scene’s extension by a couple of minutes is the main difference between the theatrical and director’s cuts (the DVD cover for which is pictured atop this review) of this movie). It’s also depressingly and unavoidably realistic. And the brutality doesn’t stop there—the same gang performs a shockingly obscene forced enema on an old retiree who they routinely terrorize out of his social security checks by any means available. This is every bit as tough to watch as anything in the notorious 70s porn enema-rape flick “Waterpower” starring Jamie Gillis, a movie so steeped in controversy to this day that the identity of its actual director still remains a mystery (although the smart money is on Shaun Costello).

So yeah. Buddy G still hasn’t lost the grindhouse-derived ability to absolutely knock you for a loop that he first displayed in his 1986 masterpiece “Combat Shock”  (and the film boasts a terrific gindhouse-style advertising tagline : “Be Cool. Life is Cool. You’re So Coll In Cracktown.” How awesome is that?). And because of my freakishly high regard for that film, as well as his masterful and criminally-underrated 1996 offering “No Way Home” starring Tim Roth, “Cracktown” is a movie I wanted to not just like, but love. I went into this fully expecting it to be the movie of the year, if not the half-decade. And maybe that’s the problem, because  in the end, what we’ve got here is a decent little indie flick that certainly stands head and shoulders above 98% of what Hollywood is offering, and is more refreshingly honest and unselfconscious than at least the same percentage of today’s independent film offerings, but I still can’t escape the feeling that it’s nowhere near as good as it could, and quite frankly should, have been.

First off, let’s get one thing straight. This isn’t so much Giovinazzo doing his own thing as it is him trying to assume the mantle of Hubert Selby, Jr. In the DVD extras, there’s a pretty interesting little “making-of” featurette where Buddy even says as much, and Selby is listed in the “thank-you”s during the movie’s end credits. Viewed as straight-up homage, in fact, it works just fine, although it ultimately lacks the visceral punch the Selby-scripted of “Last Exit to Brooklyn” or “Requiem for a Dream” because those stories really ripped you apart with their powerful endings, and “Cracktown” is too much a series of “day-in-the-life-of-residents-of-an-inner-city-hellhole” vignettes with often oblique, at best, connections to one another to provide the type of deeply-rooted audience-to-character relation that Selby’s stories use to absolutely rip our fucking guts out. Instead, what we have here are admittedly fascinating glimpses into the lives of admittedly fascinating and painfully realistic characters with no payoffs for any of their stories at the end.

It’s a testament to both Giovinazzo’s talents as a writer-director and the amazing performances of his extremely talented cast that we want to know more about these people, but that doesn’t make the fact that the movie only skims the surface of their stories any less satisfying. That’s as apt a summation I can think of as to why “Cracktown” ultimately feels like a letdown, even though you desperately want it to be anything but.

Taking center stage in this amazingly gifted ensemble is Kerry Washington as Marybeth, a pre-op transsexual and multi-drug (primarily heroin) addict who lives with her small-time burglar husband, Benny (portrayed with understated depth and understanding by Desmond Harrington), and works as a prostitute to finance their mutual habit. Washington is flat-out spectacular in this role and should definitely (but almost equally as definitely won’t) receive serious Oscar consideration for work here. Think about is : this is a woman playing a man living as a woman. She nails the part, my friends, absolutely nails it, and Harrington’s quiet, typical-guy confusion as Benny fruitlessly tries to resolve his heterosexual identity with the fact that the love of his life is, biologically speaking, still a man underpins every word he says and move he makes. It’s one of the most riveting screen relationships I can honestly ever recall seeing.

Other standout performances come from newcomers Victor Razuk as Manny, a struggling young father working two jobs, one as a daytime security officer at a welfare hotel the other as a graveyard-shift clerk at a Mexican convenience store, in an effort to support his wife and baby at home and who dreams of nothing more than saving up enough money to buy a modest starter home for his family, and Evan Ross as Romeo, leader of the aforementioned pack of violent neighborhood drug dealers, who dreams of “making his bones” with the larger gang infrastructure and ends up making a tragic mistake (or was he set up?) in his scramble up the underworld ladder. He’s got an innocent face and burning, seen-too-much-for-his-years eyes, and has a hell of a lot of natural screen charisma. You haven’t seen the last of either of these gifted young actors.

The other major subplot revolves around Edoardo Ballerini and Illeana Douglas as a crack-addicted couple with two kids living in the welfare hotel where Manny works and trying to balance their highly irresponsible lifestyle with some semblance of  parental responsibility — and failing miserably at it. They put in solid turns in their respective roles but are frankly outshone by their on-screen children, especially Ridge Canipe, who plays their son Willy, another wise-beyond-his years boy who forms a bond with a truly heartbreakingly young female child prostitute who works the same corners where he begs for spare change while his folks are off on their numerous benders.

Throw in smaller cameo parts by Lara Flynn Boyle and Brandon Routh as neighborhood junkies, Vondie Curtis Hall as a beat cop, and rapper RZA as a druglord gangbanger,  and you’ve got quite a group of players here. Heck, even the former Mrs. Prince, Mayte Garcia, pops in for a few minutes.

These are characters we never see in movies apart from throwaway “street scenes” where our leading man or lady walks down a dark street or alley and is either propositioned or mugged. These are lives few of us know very much about. They’re written with authenticity, and performed with same. But the plot structure of this movie lets them all down.

We’re given brief glimpses into their lives, trajectories or “arcs” for each of them unfold before us, and in the end, none of them are resolved. Maybe that’s realistic, maybe that’s the way it is, but in the end it feels like Giovinazzo didn’t really know how to end any of these stories, and in that respect it feels more like a documentary about various street people that happens to be performed by actors. It’s refreshing, it’s honest, and it’s authentic—but as I said before, it’s still ultimately unsatisfying.

I appreciate what Buddy G is trying to do here, I really do. It’s a genuinely gutsy piece of filmmaking in so many respects, which is what makes it’s plethora of non-resolutions feel even more like a cop-out. “Combat Shock” didn’t do this, nor did “No Way Home.” And given that our guy Buddy spends most of his time teaching film classes and working in German television these days and so rarely helms a feature film, one can’t help but feel that he missed an opportunity here, and a rare one at that, since there’s literally no telling when he’ll get another chance like this.

The atmosphere in “Cracktown” is undeniable. Giovinazzo absolutely captures the feel of life in the lower east side streets that he based his stories around (while the movie was shot in downtown L.A, you’d never know it so convincing is the world he and his cast have created). You definitely see enough of these people, and their world,  to understand what makes them tick — but you don’t see nearly enough of them to understand why.  As a result, “Life is Hot in Cracktown” makes me eager to read the book it’s  based on to gain a more detailed sense of who these characters are, but I don’t particularly care if I ever see the movie again.