Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 2, 2016)
After the enormous success of 1984’s Purple Rain as a movie and - especially - as an album, Prince could pretty much write his own ticket. Already pretty egotistical, he decided he could direct and star in his own movie.
Bad call! Parade, the album that accompanied 1986’s Under the Cherry Moon, did fairly well. No, it didn’t sell like Rain, but led by the megahit “Kiss”, it moved a reasonable number of units.
Moon, on the other hand, was an unmitigated disaster. It came and went from theaters so fast that when I didn’t see it in its first two weeks, I didn’t get the chance to watch it; it was gone by weekend three.
I finally checked it on video at some later point, though I don’t recall that I did so enthusiastically. As with Paul McCartney’s Give My Regards to Broad Street, Moon generated such a negative critical stench that I almost dreaded watching it.
Nothing about that screening changed my mind, though I honestly can’t recall what exactly I thought of Moon at the time. I might have hated it - who knows? In any case, I was curious to appraise it once more with this disc.
Set on the French Riviera, Moon introduces us to mercenary musician Christopher Tracy (Prince). He only cares about money, and along with the assistance of his cohort Tricky (Jerome Benton), he uses rich women for their wealth. When he sees that billionaire heiress Mary Sharon (Kristin Scott Thomas) will come to town, he wants to go after her.
Her absentee father Isaac (Steven Berkoff) throws Mary a 21st birthday party. Chris and Tricky crash the shindig and try to insinuate themselves but she catches onto their act quickly.
Mary bickers with Chris, who soon hooks up with Mrs. Wellington (Francesca Annis), the friend of Mary’s mother and also her father’s mistress. When Mary comes to a bar to snap at him, they engage in more romantic tension and eventually connect.
Chris rapidly antagonizes Isaac as well. The movie follows the love affair between Chris and Mary along with the problems with her father.
Look up “vanity project” in the dictionary and you’ll likely find a listing for Moon, as the film essentially exists as an ode to the glory that is Prince. It favors the visual much more strongly than any storytelling elements, and the photography often concentrates on long, lingering shots of its lead.
Prince gets glamour lighting that would look perfectly at home when used for a leading lady of the Forties. The movie accentuates Prince’s looks to the point of absurdity.
Otherwise, the visual elements of Moon stand as the film’s only strengths. The photography seems very good, as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus helps create an attractive movie.
We also get a nice look at the Riviera that gives it a classic and attractive appearance. The film’s appeaing visuals come as something of a surprise since it was shot in color and not specifically composed for black and white; I’d never have guessed that, as it presents a nicely distinctive presentation.
Too bad good looks are all Moon has going for it. Essentially the film presents a mix of music videos and travelogue footage, as the story lacks coherence or depth. The tale fails to develop or go anywhere. It shows us lots of lovely images that don’t mesh well, and the flick just plods along slowly and blandly.
The flat characters don’t help. I will say Prince displays more life than he did as a version of himself in Purple Rain, during which he came across as flat.
However, Prince overcompensates as Chris with a broad and campy performance that seems amateurish. None of the other actors do much better, and Benton comes as a particular disappointment. He added pizzazz to Rain but displays an oddly mincing and fey performance here.
Actually, the movie features a heavy homoerotic vibe between Chris and Tricky that may or may not have been intentional. The pair spend a lot of time together in close contact while half-naked, and I get the impression Tricky really lusts after his buddy and not the women he dates. Sure, Tricky pursues them throughout the movie, but he gets awfully jealous when Chris connects with Mary. It’s a weird tone to throw into the mix, and it doesn’t work.
Not that much else does succeed in Under the Cherry Moon. Essentially Prince’s love letter to himself, it moves slowly, explores its characters poorly, and lacks any cleverness or wit. The soundtrack offers some good tunes, but even that material falls short of Prince’s best; I can rattle off at least half a dozen superior albums. Put bluntly, it’s a really bad movie.