Have you ever seen a film where a man and another man have a conversation while that man is in a bathtub, taking a bath, nekkid, wearing a sombrero while talking to the other man about made-up nonsense? I have seen that film. And that man in the bathtub was Prince, and that nonsensical scene in that film was the moment when I realized that 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon was not merely a bad film, not just a misstep by a musical genius, but a brilliant, boring mishmash of future Prince GIFs and nonsense that was a celebration of the decadence of Prince’s beautiful but incredibly goofy ego.
Under the Cherry Moon was released in 1986, coming off the heels of Prince’s masterpiece Purple Rain. It was quickly panned for being weird and boring, but mostly for not being the sequel to Purple Rain, that seminal black musical classic that became almost as iconic as the man himself. When it came time for awards given out for the worst films, officially called the Golden Raspberries, Under the Cherry Moon walked away with five, including a tie with Howard the Duck for worst picture. For everything that Purple Rain was, Under the Cherry Moon was not. If Purple Rain was early-’80s Prince, then Under the Cherry Moon was New Power Generation, slave-beard Prince. Still funky, but I have absolutely no idea what is happening.
(NPG Prince also made a forgettable film, 1990’s Graffiti Bridge, which had only one redeemable quality: the extended mix of “Thieves in the Temple.” But my managing editor doesn’t hate me, so no one made me watch this one.)
But we at The Root wondered if we missed something. On the one-year anniversary this week of Prince’s death, I nominated myself as a tribute to revisit the movie and see if there were any hidden gems that went undiscovered; any shiny bits that went unpolished; any lines that should be recycled on social media. And the short answer is: No.
This fucking movie blows.
In Under the Cherry Moon, Prince plays Christopher Tracy, a piano player in a posh restaurant on the French Riviera who, along with his partner, Tricky (played by Jerome Benton from Purple Rain), tries to con an heiress (Kristin Scott Thomas in her feature debut) out of a $50 million inheritance. That’s it. Just Prince and “French” Jerome trying to swindle a woman out of her money in black and white, while also also trying to swindle viewers into believing that these two aren’t Prince and French Jerome. The swindle fails. The two speak, dress and behave just as if they are Prince and Jerome Benton. Prince is wearing all his festive ice-skating outfits, and Jerome is suited and booted just like he was in Purple Rain.
Under the Cherry Moon is made up of three equal parts: That is, one-third of the movie is boring, one-third of the movie is dumb and one-third of the movie is goofy. And it’s the goofy parts that trouble me the most. In one scene, Prince and French Jerome are thrown out of a party, and I swear the scene is shot in the same way that DJ Jazzy Jeff would be tossed from Uncle Phil’s house.
While we know Prince to be quirky, and even silly, we don’t know him to be goofy. And it’s part of the reason that this playboy character doesn’t resonate: because it undoes part of Prince’s mysterious, smooth persona. Prince’s onstage persona and even his Purple Rain persona were seductive, charming, elusive and vulnerable, but never slapstick. Imagine watching Billy Dee Williams go from being a Colt 45 pitchman to playing “got your nose” with an adult female; doesn’t mean it can’t happen, but it’s weird.
It’s not that Under the Cherry Moon doesn’t make sense; it’s that Under the Cherry Moon doesn’t even attempt to make sense, and Under the Cherry Moon seems fine with that. It’s the movie equivalent of a traffic cone in the woods or a broken doorbell: You can imagine that at some point it served a purpose, but taken out of context, it isn’t even art; it’s just kind of there in the universe as a thing, a misplaced object.
That’s what Under the Cherry Moon is: a misplaced object, inasmuch as it’s a movie that just does stuff without purpose or reason. At one point, Thomas leads a party crowd in a drum version of “Planet rock, you just don’t stop” (which would become the drum baseline for LL Cool J’s “Jiggling Baby”), just because she can.
The entire movie isn’t a wash. Prince’s faces, which he serves up throughout the movie, are GIF-ready. Maybe that is it. Maybe Prince knew that social media was coming and made this movie to give us the gif(t) of Prince face GIFs. Truthfully, that is the only positive—well, that and a funny moment when Prince asks Thomas to take a trip into his world and has her read “Wrecka Sto” off a sheet of paper. The joke illuminates how far apart Thomas and Prince actually are. But it’s that distance—the distance between Prince’s soft shoe and Thomas’ character’s cluelessness—that never gets closed, and that gap is what creates even more distance for the audience.
Watching the film in all its ridiculous glory gave me a new appreciation, coincidentally, for Gordon Parks. Parks’ brilliance was bendable; as such, he was able to bring his genius with him into everything he touched. From his stunning photographs of black life to The Learning Tree and Shaft, Parks made his genius seem effortless. So it pains me to say, on the one-year anniversary of the death of arguably the greatest musical genius of my time, that Prince’s genius didn’t bend. Under the Cherry Moon wasn’t just a swing and a miss; it was an opportunistic attempt at playing cute with studio money. At best, it was Narcissus masturbating to a video of himself; and at its worst, it was a disjointed, black-and-white, faux avant-garde bore.
Now, Parade, the soundtrack to Under the Cherry Moon and the last album to feature the Revolution, was an underappreciated classic that included “Kiss,” “Anotherloverholenyohead” and “Sometimes It Snows in April.” We can argue all day about whether “I Wonder U” or “Do U Lie” is worthy of mention, but when it comes to Prince’s untarnished legacy, it’s probably best if we all just act as if the movie he made after Purple Rain never happened.