PRINT January 1991


AS ROCK GROWS more rationalized and compartmentalized, artists who confound pop norms and reinterpret them along personal, even clandestine lines are likely to appear as mere exotica—endangered species. A performer such as Madonna makes art (and when she wants to, trouble) out of the conditions of her celebrity: her work finds its subject in the mechanisms of public perception and mass fantasy of which it, and she, are a product. On the other hand, one like Prince, whose position as an erotic provocateur and soothsayer Madonna has herself eclipsed, is harder to locate by the reference points of celebrity. His obdurate mixture of phenomenal vitality and still more phenomenal folly is fascinating. There is scarcely an impulse or contradiction in rock’s nearly four decades that doesn’t resurface in his music or films, usually intensified and bent into new and disturbing shapes—the endangered species as pretzel.

Stardom has never been its own reward for Prince: it’s a pulpit from which to preach his neo-gnostic gospel of sex, death, and salvation. Moving through the 1980s as a bearer of excitement and confusion, he paired every gesture of inspired perversity with another of received nonsense. His music has been profoundly inclusive in terms of sound—assimilating funk and psychedelia, R&B delicacy and Top 40 obviousness—even as it has edged toward insulation from any life lived beyond the spheres of reclusive millionaires and saints. The God-is-Luv message Prince espouses seems taken from under-the-bedcovers readings equally of the New Testament and of Penthouse—mutually exclusive but somehow mutually reinforcing fantasies of distance, intimacy, escape, and rapture.

Prince called his former band the Revolution and his style has always been that of revolt, though without any real object. Certainly he’s constructed a discourse out of the paradoxes of miscegenation and androgyny, in spite of last decade's increasing drift into racial polarization and militant heterosexism. But it's a discourse minus a center, the signifiers of race and gander not floating free but merely diffused (and defused) to the point of insignificance. Prince’s chief mode is the reverie, whether slow or fast, plaintive or orgiastic—“When You Were Mine,” “Little Red Corvette,” “When Doves Cry,” “Kiss,” “The Cross.” Each of these songs is a daydream of engagement and withdrawal, each a riddle eros translates into civilization’s willful tongue: the music incarnates a heaven of transcendental youth and beauty where desire turns inward to melt under its own gaze. Here stardom is divested of its public dimension—as speech, imagery, bound up in the collective fabric of social life—and becomes a desert island on which Prince plays Friday as the incestuous twin to his own Robinson Crusoe.

The movie Graffiti Bridge (Prince wrote, directed, and stars, besides contributing more than a dozen new songs) is the latest message in a bottle from Prince’s private world. It’s also the most complete statement yet of his recondite electronic ministry, wherein the funk of the body is suborned to do the bidding of the holy spirit. As theology, the movie is marginally more persuasive than The 700 Club, while as static spectacle it runs a dead heat with Pat Roberson’s millenarian kaffeeklatsch. But as awful movies go, Graffiti Bridge is painless enough. There's something almost self-effacing about its guileless good intentions, especially coming from someone who’s often sounded as if he thinks the Trinity ought to be a foursome. Prince clearly wants to save souls (starting with his own) more than stroke his ego. Even when he’s manipulative here, he’s so in an archaic way that predates rock musicals or for that matter film musicals. He imbues the film with a stiff nobility that makes its lessons in uplift seem transposed from the silent era; some of his sentiments are so high-flown and innocent they belong on title cards.

The music holds the picture together as best it can, though it’s used in egregiously programmatic ways. But nothing else is going on: as a filmmaker, Prince has regressed from even the rudimentary narrative skills he displayed in the universally panned Under The Cherry Moon,1986, and the new movie has few of the blankly excessive behavioral and scenic quirks that made the former’s ineptitude charming in stretches. The songs in Graffiti Bridge provide a respite from the dead weight of the story line and the nonacting of the actors, but they’re meant to dramatize a split between carnal and spiritual that Prince can’t figure out how to put up on the screen. This time he’s structured that opposition not around its inherent tension but around acceptance, and acceptance in any guise has always been what’s most unconvincing in his music. So while the text of this movie is a quest for wholeness in the form of God, the subtext is that of an unconscious and irreconcilable division between Prince the pilgrim and the temporal sources of his music.

Intended as a sequel to the 1984 hit Purple Rain, Graffiti Bridge is more a remake of the earlier film, with the accent on displacement rather than fidelity. Prince is once more “the Kid” (he looks younger here than he did then), Morris Day returns as his rival and arch-nemesis “Morris Day,” and the action revolves around their struggle for dominance of clubland (except this time the Kid and Day are nightclub owners as well as performers, and their milieu isn’t Minneapolis but soundstage never-never land). Prince opened Purple Rain with a sermon from the stage (“Dearly beloved,” it began) that concluded: “In this life, things are much harder than in the afterworld; in this life, you’re on your own.” But Prince has rectified that in Graffiti Bridge: instead of Apollonia, the previous film’s sex interest, the Kid has Aura (Ingrid Chavez), an angel who has been sent to guide him to the path of righteousness. (This being Prince, he does get to fool around with her after rescuing the drunken angel from becoming an unwitting “pimp sandwich” at the hands of Day and cohort-in-sleaze Jerome Benton.)

All Chavez has to do is radiate beatitude, and when she isn’t asked to recite bad lines or worse poetry at the same time, she makes an effective icon. She’s the most visually enjoyable element in the entire petrified movie (where everyone has been directed to pose for either a Last Supper tableau or a Three Stooges still), the same way Revolution member/bit-player Lisa Coleman’s way of smoking a cigarette was the most arresting cinematic aspect of Purple Rain. But as any twelve-year-old could guess, Aura dies abruptly (like the helpful deus ex machina she is), her martyrdom teaching the Kid the true meaning of belief and tying up the loose ends of the plot. In the apogee of Prince’s Sunday-school-on-acid vision, the Kid leads the cast in a memorial rendition of the title song, a service he performs with his back to a huge mural of a nude Aura. Done in the timeless Elvis-on-velvet manner, she’s posed like a Vegas showgirl except she has wings sprouting from her shoulders at the same upturned angle as her breasts (the wings, as per custom, are bigger). The incongruity of this scene goes beyond kitsch into a zonked realm of its own that’s so untouched by self-consciousness (forget irony) that it is as immune to disbelief as its it so comprehension.

The central difference between Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge, though, is six years: then Prince was the future of rock, now he’s part of its past. In the square-peg-round-hole anthem “New Power Generation,” whose “old music . . . old ideas” can Prince mean are holding him—“us”—down? He’s as much a fixture in rock’s pantheon as Mick Jagger, and about as relevant. In moments such as these, he’s less a pop rebel than a prematurely senile prophet: an anachronism without a cause. Hip-hop’s dissociative beats, sexist bravado, and confrontational directness make Prince’s more circuitous musical and sexual directions seem nostalgic, even suspect. Pointedly brushing off rap in the new film (a rapper the Kid never allows onstage is a running gag), Prince could use an infusion of its energy and toughness, just as much as hip-hop could gain by a dose of his melodic sense, vocal nuance, and less-oppressive sexuality. He needs something that might ground his elaborate fancies in a recognizable reality, even if that reality is a media-generated one at this point.

It’s no accident that with the exception of the heartfelt, deeply odd “Joy in Repetition,” Prince cedes the strongest material in the movie to others: “Melody Cool” to Mavis Staples (when she appeared, a women behind me in the theatre gasped her name approvingly), “Love Machine” and “Shake!” to Morris Day’s band the Time. These lowdown performances by the Time are presented as decadent, vaguely corrupt; their sin is they lack the supposed inspirational qualities the Kid is busy cultivating. But “Love Machine” is a great come-on, and with its ineluctable rhythm, not to mention the amazing ? and the Mysterians organ riff, “Shake!” is trash serendipity: it is all but thrown away in the movie (staged as if it were a pajama party rather than a bomb going off), as if Prince knew full well anyone with a pulse would rather wallow in the Time’s cool brimstone than go to Prince’s coloring-book heaven. “Shake!” is part and parcel of the tainted material world Prince means to wash his hands of in the picture, while for Day and the Time, paradise is personified by the giant Crisco bottle that looms behind them as they invite the audience to fry.

In the movie, the ambivalence Prince has built his career upon finally implodes: the questions of race he evades, the matters of sex he idly toys with, the metaphysical speculations he sinks in like quicksand. His search for meaning leads him to manufacture roots he has no affinity for—ways of escaping the fact that he’s a pure product of cultural dissolution. His calling, and genius, is a species of joyous bastardization. The morally coherent (if intrinsically conflicted) black traditions of gospel, soul, or the blues are utterly foreign to his specialized form of ecclesiastical hedonism. His gift is for potent sensations, not moral drama or morals period. His insights into God and sex, or for that matter the hypersensitive identification he manifests toward those subjects, are far from the true essence of his music. That lies in the compulsive aural detail his best records accumulate, the galvanic documentation of a universe that only exists in his head.

A blueprint of what Graffiti Bridge might have been, or at least could have sounded like, exists on his 1988 album Lovesexy, a masterpiece that’s been lost already. The same themes were all present, but working with the final edition of the Revolution, what came across was simply an unsparing commitment to sonic adventure: whirling layers of guitars, horns, bass, keyboards, percussion, strings, and above all the jump-cut cross talk of a slew of disparate voices (most supplied by Prince himself). From its deep bows to the pluralistic chatter of Sly & the Family Stone on down through its allusions to “Kashmir” and “Gimme Shelter,” Lovesexy—conceived and recorded when Prince deemed his so-called Black Album too negative and dark to release (for “dark,” many read “black”)—was a polyglot epiphany. Less an album in the usual sense (individual songs, discrete hooks, intelligible words, a univocal presence) than a studio-crafted tower of babble, it was the soundtrack to an unmade (and perhaps unmakable) movie. Lovesexy had nothing to do with meaning as such and everything to do with possibility—the social and sexual spaces that emerge when a wedge is slipped between the world and its self-representations.

The soundtrack to Graffiti Bridge is like a faint answer record to Lovesexy. Everything is spelled out and nothing takes hold, save dust on the phonograph needle. The leap Prince fails to make on Graffiti Bridge is not one of faith, whatever that careworn word means to him or us, but a leap after the holy ghosts he termed “spooky electric” as they careened their intoxicated way down the halls of Lovesexy. Without that electricity—spookiness signifying as abandon, abandon signifying as hunger, hunger signifying as the opportunity for total fulfillment—all that’s really left are the tiny carpet-shocks Prince causes when he reaches for the doorknob of the afterlife.

Howard Hampton writes regularly about music and books for the L.A. Weekly.