The Film: Under the Cherry Moon (1986)
The Principals: Prince, Kristin Scott Thomas, Steven Berkoff, Jerome Benton, Alexandra Stewart, Francesca Annis. Directed by Prince.
The Premise: Miami-based con artist and gigolo Christopher Tracy (Prince) prowls the Mediterranean with his accomplice and friend Tricky (Benton) courting rich women for their fortunes. When Tracy falls hard for young, engaged heiress Mary Sharon (Thomas), he encounters tension from the jealous Tricky and Mary’s fiercely overprotective parents (Berkoff and Stewart).
Is It Good? Here’s the thing—in spite of its failings and campy, uneven product, this is an astoundingly well-shot (and scored, obviously) experience of a film. More so than his music, Prince’s directorial debut suggests an offbeat, acquired taste that rides on a postmodern but lush aesthetic—Fellini by way of MTV. Those expecting a reprise of Purple Rain instead got a quasi-art house film that serves up a bizarre orgy of genres and quirks from various eras of cinema. The attitude and music suggest the 1980’s. The baroque acting and opulence recall the silent era. The black-and-white photography and romanticism are entirely representative of a gamut of mid-20th century film movements from 1940’s Hollywood to the French New Wave.
Ambitious as it is, however, the Purple One’s efforts are quite wretched and straddle a wafer-thin line between intentional camp and unmitigated embarrassment that often falls on the former. From the moment grown woman Kristin Scott Thomas disrobes in front of the many attendees at her birthday party, “How do you like my birthday suit? I designed it myself!”, then serves as drummer on the sort of funky jam that made Prince one of the most innovative musicians of his era, the writing is on the wall that we are not in a sense of normalcy. Under the Cherry Moon is a straightforward parallel of the brand of flamboyance that Prince stands for—loud, raucous, and in-your-face, even if, unlike his music, there are plenty of faults, the least of which is not Prince’s performance.
Christopher Tracy is the protagonist of the film, and we are expected to see him as the hero as he falls for Mary. Much like the relationship he develops with Apollonia in Purple Rain, he can be seen as a manipulative, cloying suitor whose motivation for affection is to achieve penetration before mutual feelings. Whereas The Kid is backed by his introverted need to break away from his broken home to counteract his slyness, Tracy is an unlikable, predatory smartass whose personality is enough to nearly bring the entire point of the film to a screeching halt. When Steven Berkoff, as Mary’s scheming, omnipotent father comes off as more sympathetic than your lead, you know trouble is somewhat afoot.
All we need to know about Christopher Tracy is presented to us at face value as he goofs off with his equally outrageous partner in crime, Tricky, and his repeated mantra: “Life is a parade.” Parade was the name of the film’s soundtrack album, and it only seems fitting that Tracy’s motto is representative of the film’s bipolar nature. Points of serious romance are followed directly by scenes of Tracy frolicking in the bathtub wearing a cowboy hat. Becky Johnston’s screenplay further accentuates the absurdist style with a collection of overacted one-liners. You’ll marvel at Prince fucking with Kristin Scott Thomas about the meaning of “wrecka stow” and then telling her, “Maybe if you loosen your chastity belt, you could breathe a little more better!” Tricky exclaims to someone that they are a “selfish son of a biscuit eater.” Mary tells Tracy he has a disease called “stupid.”
Jerome Benton’s performance as Tricky is another fault of the film. While just as crazed as his friend, he has a mean streak of misogyny pumping through him, such as when he delivers this wonderful speech:
I hate stupid women. You know why? 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.
Not exactly compassionate, especially backed up by his moronic Andrew Dice Clay routine where he recites the film’s idea of poetry:
What a pity
Can be so shitty
Here’s a girl
Who’s smart and pretty.
Tricky, Under the Cherry Moon
The only poetry this film gets right is through the lush and precise means Prince takes behind the camera, and the incredible, sweeping soundtrack—“Christopher Tracy’s Parade” is a thundering track to open the film, and it’s easy to see how “Kiss” works as well as it does here and can stand alone as one of his most well-known hits. As far as hits, however, Under the Cherry Moon is a deep cut, an acquired taste not for the casual fans or uninitiated, and even still, a flawed if well-constructed picture.
Is It Worth a Look? Depends wildly on what you think of Prince. For Prince fans, this is required viewing with reservations for the esoteric nature of the film. For anyone who is a very casual fan of the Paisley One, avoid it. If you appreciate postmodernism and stand by an ideology that music videos are a form of art, you should certainly seek it out. If Kristin Scott Thomas is one of your favorite actresses, then why not see where her career started?
Random Anecdotes: Kristin Scott Thomas’s not-so-fond look back in a 2005 interview: When I left drama school…I was more afraid of not working at all than of the actual material I was being offered. And if you look at my very first film, you’ll understand exactly what I mean.
While the film’s black-and-white photography (by frequent Scorsese collaborator Michael Ballhaus!) is one of the film’s calling cards, Under the Cherry Moon was filmed in color before going black and white in post-production.
Typecast for villain roles especially after his turns in Beverly Hills Cop and Rambo: First Blood Part II, Steven Berkoff was a last-minute addition to the cast after the actor cast in the role quit at the beginning of filming.
Prince wrote “Manic Monday” under the pseudonym Christopher Tracy. Mere months after this film was released, that song became a breakthrough hit for the on-the-rise female rock band the Bangles.
Parade, the soundtrack album released with music from Prince and the Revolution, was poorly received in the United States but was found better critical reception and album sales in Europe.
Released the same day in theaters as another box-office failure that was far better than this—Big Trouble in Little China!
Mary Lambert—who had skyrocketed to fame directing several music videos by Madonna, The Go-Gos, Eurythmics, Janet Jackson and many more—was originally poised to make her directorial debut with this film. She was fired by Prince due to “creative differences.” Lambert moved on to another Warner Bros. project, The Lost Boys, and her tenure on that film was befallen by the same, ambiguous “creative differences” reason. Nevertheless, she is billed as a “creative consultant” in the opening credits of this one.
Under the Cherry Moon won five Golden Raspberry Awards in 1987, including Worst Picture (a tie with Howard the Duck, natch), Director, Actor (Prince for both), Supporting Actor (Jerome Benton), and Song (“Love or Money”). Kristin Scott Thomas evaded winning Worst Supporting Actress and Worst New Star, while Becky Johnston’s screenplay was similarly spared.
Cinematic Soulmates: Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge (which I still have not seen), American Gigolo, Streets of Fire