Prince’s Underrated Under the Cherry Moon
It’s been many a year now since Minneapolis’ legendary rock star, Prince, bowed off the world stage far too young. His legacy lives on with new generations picking up his music and memes, not to mention the tremendous influence he had on Midwest music and 80s pop in general. One of these days I need to cover the prolific group of bands around Prince, the way I just did formerly with Adam and the Ants and Blondie, respectively.
While fans just about seem to love all his output near-universally, there is one alleged transgression in his career which, decades later, seems to alienate audiences to this day. The movie both Siskel and Ebert thumbs-downed. A movie that still, even after re-evaluation, stands at a 36% score on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m talking about a movie that swept the Golden Raspberries that year, hit with five out of eight nominations. You know what other movie got the big Razz that year? Howard the Duck.
Yes, you heard me. I hope that if anyone within earshot of me ranks Under the Cherry Moon with Howard the Duck, they follow such heresy with a chaser of soap to wash their mouth out and some corner time to atone for their blasphemy.
A lot of this hate seems to be directed at Prince doing a vanity project. God, do I hate this stigma around vanity films. Heavens forbid that a brilliant and talented director get to have fun and let their hair down and make a movie just for the art of it. “Don’t be so self-indulgent!” said Karen from her Influencer Cafe corner table photoshoot where she soaks up 100,000 likes for posing her face next to a latte and a cookie. Ah vanity, thy name is shame!
Well I LIKE self-indulgent vanity projects. Don’t boo me too long, you’ll be late for the box office opening of Garglers of the Glacticon 295: Rocket Raccoon Gets Fleas.
Under the Cherry Moon has its drawbacks, sure
Yes, it is not fit to fill the shoes of Purple Rain, which was a huge hit by contrast. Yes, it is pretentious and in-your-face arty. Yes, I remember clearly one newspaper critic at the time near Hollywood chide “Prince just called to say he loves himself.” And it’s full of rather odd choices. While Purple Rain was mostly a romanticized autobiography, Prince here casts himself in an aristocratic romantic/comedy romp.
How on Earth people had followed Prince’s career up until that point, watching him experiment freely with every album, and not known that he wasn’t just going to crank out Purple Rain II and call it a day, that I can’t guess. I suspect that Prince was on the cusp of perhaps pulling a David Bowie where the emphasis was always on looking forward, leaving behind a chaptered career – a move I almost thought would be confirmed when Prince changed his name to that symbol (it turned out to be motivated by a legal copyright fight). Alas, his movie career just never gelled.
But more than anything, the main flaw of Under the Cherry Moon is that for a work of fiction, it’s not particularly substantial. It’s a movie that exists because Prince wanted it to. Of course, you know, Elvis Presley pulled this same routine for years and everybody loved him for it. Therefore, we are left with a movie which critic after critic trashed as “of interest only to Prince fans.” What, was it supposed to appeal to Metallica fans?
Well, when you come down to it, Prince only actually performs a couple songs in the whole movie. So even some Prince fans had a reason to pass.
Without this movie, we would not be treated to…
The stunning visuals Under the Cherry Moon
Rippling with bisexual energy and ‘80s pop romanticism, you can clearly see where movies like Casablanca informed the visual style. While Prince isn’t a great actor and never claims to be, he does have great screen presence and manages to drip sauce all over the frame whether he’s taking a tub bath in a cowboy hat or appearing on stage dressed like he ran through a Bavarian bazaar covered in glue and bought whatever stuck.
Not that the character of Mary (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) is allowed to look any less ridiculous, attending dinner with what appears to be a chandelier draped over her head. Nor is Prince’s sidekick Tricky (Jerome Benton) escaping the wardrobe department’s reign of panache, not with his glittery jacket that would make Elton John jealous. The movie was filmed on the French Riviera for the very best of reasons - they had the budget and why the hell not? Much of the set-up takes place at a huge party for the elite to give us an excuse to have jugglers and fire-breathers running around in the background.
Prince had to take over directing this beast at last minute’s notice, and he knocked it out of the park. Whatever other flaws there are in this film, you can’t take your eyes off it for a minute. Barring a few awkwardly framed shots, which are just skewed enough to add some charming quirks, Prince shows that he could have been a rock star behind the camera.
Under the Cherry Moon is actually funny
Given the average rock star movie project, Prince really hit the jackpot when he got screenwriter Becky Johnston – she who would go on to pen Seven Years in Tibet and House of Gucci. Johnston here got in touch with her inner Mark Brother, loading the dialog with quips and snark. Most of this is molded to Prince’s gift for puckish wit using his class-clown smart-ass mouth. His idea of romancing Mary is to simply appear in her couch, lounging on her sofa, gorging on her grapes, and when she threatens to have security throw him out, taunts “Why, cuz you ain’t bad enough to do it yourself?”
Since this is a vanity project after all, Prince gets to hog the best lines. Mary is cast as a hopelessly stuck-up rich bitch, mainly to give Prince somebody to sharpen his sexy claws on. Even Tricky pairs well with him, and the two throw themselves into a hilarious Martin-and-Lewis tag-team gimmick whenever they share a scene. Otherwise, Tricky gets his own little gems like “You marry a stupid girl, you have stupid kids. You don't believe me? Follow a stupid kid home and see if somebody stupid don't answer the door.”
Is it forever too late to redeem this movie?
Deep drama this is not. It’s pretty silly and doesn’t pretend differently. But it is damn well entertaining, and represents a lot more thought than you see put into the average rock star movie. Look at it this way; how much worse could it have been? Madonna released Shanghai Surprise only months later and it did even worse at the box office.
Yes, Madonna, Shanghai Surprise. Bet you forgot that movie even existed, didn’t you? But you knew Under the Cherry Moon, you remembered it, you’ve seen it flash by in your streaming movie queue even if you’re not a Prince fan. Now you see, Under the Cherry Moon could have been a forgettable, unremarkable project. But this is what happens when you let a creative genius open a can of whoop-ass. We should do this more often.