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Prince’s ‘Sign ‘O’ the Times’ movie, revisited

Prince in the film 'Sign 'O' the Times.'
Prince in the film 'Sign 'O' the Times.'Cineplex-Odeon Films

by Michaelangelo Matos

April 01, 2022

For a long time, viewings of Sign ‘O’ the Times, the filmed concert starring and directed by Prince from 1987, were hard to come by unless you owned it on old media. Prince’s three other films—Purple Rain (1984), Under the Cherry Moon (1986), and Graffiti Bridge (1990)—all live under one corporate umbrella, but SOTT is the outlier.

The Sign ‘O’ the Times film was only ever issued on VHS in America, and that went out of print more than 20 years ago; it has still not made it to DVD or Blu-Ray domestically. (I own a burned DVD-R bootleg of the Alliance Atlantic European release from 2005, with its original cover art Xeroxed in color—something I didn’t discover until I took it home.) When Showtime aired the film in 2017, the showing was so rare that Rolling Stone was moved to run a story about it. The film wasn’t even included on the eight-CD-plus-DVD Special Deluxe Edition of the Sign ‘O’ the Times album released in 2020.

Yet suddenly Sign ‘O’ the Times, the movie, is everywhere. In early March, Minneapolis’s Capri Theater—where Prince staged his first headlining concert under his own name, in 1979—held a screening of the film. The Alamo Drafthouse is set to  screen SOTT at its nationwide outlets this coming weekend, including a sold-out April 3 event in Woodbury. Also in March, SOTT debuted on the Criterion Channel, as part of the Live in Concert program—alongside classics like Jazz on a Summer’s Day, Monterey Pop, and Wattstax—and it has been consistently near the top of the streaming service’s most popular offerings.

Since his death six years ago, all things Prince have enjoyed newfound popularity. But if anything, the SOTT film’s comeback is a mirror image of the film’s initial release, driven then as now by a sudden economic downturn and a sharp rise in home viewing.

Dig, if you will, the picture

It’s the fall of 1987, and the Stock Market has crashed. “No sector of the media and entertainment business escaped the Oct. 19 market plunge,” Variety reported on its front page that month, before citing a financial analyst, who cited an old showbiz saw: “During tough times, people turn to entertainment for escape . . . He also speculated that home-video distributors might benefit since renting a cassette for an evening would be considerably cheaper than taking the family to a theatrical movie, dining out, paying for parking and a babysitter: ‘It’s the cheapest form of entertainment.’”

Only three years earlier, of course, Prince had been a box-office king, thanks to Purple Rain, which also did “boffo biz,” to use Variety’s terminology, on home video: 400,000 preorders before its VHS release in November 1984. Yet Warner doesn’t own SOTT, and never did. The release of SOTT was not handled by the massive Warner complex but by the smaller distributor Cineplex Odeon, then allied with MCA. (That’s why it’s not part of the Super Deluxe box reissue.)

Warner Bros. had grossed a fortune on Purple Rain three years earlier, but in 1986, Prince’s second film, Under the Cherry Moon, had drastically underperformed, taking in a sliver ($10 million, on a $9 million budget, prior to publicity costs) of its predecessor’s $70 million gross. And Cherry Moon was massacred by film critics: “The film insults our intelligence,” Gene Siskel said, “and really, it insults the intelligence that Prince showed us he had in his film debut . . . This is beneath the guy. Here’s a big talent in a small movie.” Warner Bros. music was still indulging the star, but Warner films decided he wasn’t worth losing its paisley vest over, particularly for a movie he was, by all indications, making in a hurry. The man who could make entire albums in mere days—albums that were and remain a vibe—had literally reshot the entire thing in a week.

Production, promotion, and distribution challenges

SOTT had been planned as a live film, in lieu of an American tour behind it: Prince—not unusually, to say it mildly—had gotten bored with the project right as his peers would have been kicking the album’s promotion into second gear, in advance of a two-year spin-out of the album’s abundance of potential hit material. Instead, after two months traversing Europe, Prince assembled a film crew for the final dates, three nights in Rotterdam and the finale in Antwerp in mid-June. The sound was great, but the footage was judged too grainy, so the band spent five days re-shooting the entire show at Paisley Park that July, two months ahead of the studio’s official opening, miming and lip-synching its own live show. 

“Prince began working on the film Sunday,” went an AP report, adding: “He hopes to complete work on the movie by Friday and have it ready for national distribution by the first week of September.”

This was a distinct disadvantage. By the time SOTT hit theaters on November 20, 1987, the album’s hit streak had already run out—and its second single, “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” had been a chart dud, stalling the double LP’s momentum. Prince’s commitment to moving forward—December saw the planned surprise release, canceled days before, of The Black Album—made the movie seem like an afterthought. It felt optional, not crucial, dumped in theaters a week before Thanksgiving, right as blockbuster season was beginning—a Hail Mary pass in the movie biz—not to mention with a rollout considerably smaller than Purple Rain’s. That film had opened in 900 theaters and was one of the biggest hits of the year. Sign ‘O’ the Times debuted in some 250 theaters and was gone within seven weeks.

A booming movie business

It’s true that the odds were against SOTT as a moneymaker even before Black Monday. In 1987, the major film companies were raking it in—Variety reported that the big studios had “recouped 80 percent of their production costs at the U.S. box office,” even before “foreign and ancillary revenues are added to the equation.” The latter meant revenues from home video and cable TV, in particular—which was where American independent filmmakers made most of their money.  “In fact,” Variety noted, “approximately 37 percent of the annual production of indie U.S. features receives no U.S. theatrical release at all.” (The two big independent success stories of the year were Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle, a satire of the movie biz’s treatment of Black people, and the teen murder drama River’s Edge, one of Keanu Reeves’ early films.) In any event, SOTT earned only around $3 million in theatrical rentals (it’s fair to assume the film’s budget was well under $1 million) and, indeed, led a more illustrious moneymaking life in the ancillary markets: the VHS release went platinum in 1990.

Sign ‘O’ the Times was hardly the only rock-oriented film in theaters that season. There was also Siesta, directed by Mary Lambert—who’d started directing Cherry Moon only for Prince to replace her with himself—and Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock and Roll!, Taylor Hackford’s documentary about the OG rocker’s 60th birthday concert in St. Louis. On the art-house circuit that SOTT semi-shared was Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Todd Haynes’s depiction of the life and death of the Carpenters’ vocalist with Barbie dolls, which was legally withdrawn after Richard Carpenter sued for copyright infringement. 

Sign ‘O’ the Times was also part of a burgeoning local film business. SOTT was one of five Minnesota-made films in 1987—there was also the Sam Shepard-directed Far North, starring Minnesota-born Jessica Lange; Rachel River (dir. Patti Smolan); Now I Lay Me . . . (Miloslav Janek); and Patti Rocks (David Burton Morris). In 1988, an executive at the Minnesota Motion Picture and Television Board told Back Stage, “We’re working on six feature films that have shooting schedules of June through January—all L.A. companies.” Prince himself had recently purchased the rights to remake of the Czech director Milos Forman’s 1965 film Loves of a Blonde.

"Sign 'O' The Times" movie poster

Critics weigh in: “A film noir fantasy zone”

SOTT did well critically, though anything would have done better than Under the Cherry Moon. Janet Maslin of the New York Times noted that “Prince himself [was] wearing things that only Prince would wear—cutout matador suits with shirred seams up the back; a mad bellhop outfit; a white bunny-fluff coat as a witty touch to accompany ‘If I Was Your Girlfriend.’” The Guardian raved, “It’s like landing on a planet of superpersons, where everyone can dance, sing or play with precocious skill.” J. Hoberman of the Village Voice—who noted in his review that he had been “maybe the only critic in America to give a good review” to Under the Cherry Moon—called Prince “a sexual Morse code run amok. Prince seems to synthesize three-fourths of rock’n’roll history, but he wears it lightly.”

The most overheated review definitely came from Variety: “Defiantly carnal in the face of AIDS-era safe sexiness, the Prince revue is set in a film noir fantasy zone where the come-hither blinking of gaudy neon honky-tonk signs flashes over an idealized back-alley netherworld. There, strong-willed, Nautilis-sinewed, lascivious women—lissome gladiatrixes of rock and roll bloodsport—challenge the sexual imperatives of Princely machismo.” (Somebody bring me a fan.)

The Toronto Globe & Mail were harsher, calling the film “a rotten movie of a terrific show,” though its reviewer did admit, “In ‘Housequake,’ [Prince] drops to the splits, pops back up and bounces the mike off his chest and into his waiting hand on the way. The smutty bump and grind is leavened by a campy playfulness, a relief after the primping, pouting misogyny of his two previous films.”       

A contemporary take

The film holds up remarkably well, for all its garish ’80s trappings. (The clip for the Sheena Easton duet “U Got the Look,” inserted into the middle of the film the way the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” was wedged onto Pet Sounds, isn’t just a cock-rocker in pop guise: the video itself is a covert hair-metal artifact.) The most obvious of these is the MTV-esque editing.

What makes the Purple Rain footage so breathtaking—and it, too, was lip-synched to earlier live recordings—are the sustained shots; even when the camera is moving, we get to absorb the real-time presence of Prince and the other musicians. In SOTT, nothing stays in place even when Prince himself does. This was a heavily choreographed show, and the eye is always busy, sometimes too busy: Prince simply did not have the kind of confidence as a director that Jonathan Demme did for Stop Making Sense (1984), his Talking Heads doc.

But other kinds of confidence have their own appeal, as the film’s critics also noted. “Where Demme goes for a sinuous, almost elegant clarity, Prince’s movie is all murk, scuzz, steam, and, oh yeah, sex,” Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell wrote in Video Review. “With all due respect, which one sounds more like a real rock concert to you?”

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This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.