Virginia Turbett

The Auteur More Famously Known As Prince

From Under the Cherry Moon to Graffiti Bridge to an unreleased trove of music videos, a look at Prince's career behind the camera

In Paisley Park, there's a vault of treasures. Prince filled it with never-heard songs. He could write, record, and produce a song a day. He famously shunned sleep, and second takes. "He liked the feeling of first takes, even if they were flawed," said his violinist Novi Novog. Besides, Prince rarely made mistakes. He could play every instrument: drums, guitar, bass, keyboards, vocals. More importantly, he trusted his instincts. Why listen to lesser opinions when Warner Bros. had allowed him — him! a then-19-year-old nobody from Minnesota — to become the youngest major label record producer in history? In music, Prince had nothing left to prove.

But that Paisley Park vault also contains over 50 never-seen music videos, at least 40 of which Prince helmed. Which means it holds Prince's one failed ambition: to direct. He was as full of film ideas as he was of songs, scribbling scripts for a Warriors-esque musical and a religious story about his own struggle with morality. Those never happened. Instead, he starred in one hit, 1984's Purple Rain, and he directed two flops, Under the Cherry Moon and Graffiti Bridge.

Yet, Prince was a natural director. In his daily life, he was one. He had a vision for how the world should look, especially the people in it. On tour, he'd order his bandmates to wear sparkly spandex rock star costumes even when they were just trying to eat breakfast at the hotel. "If you said, ‘I'm not going to wear that,' you'd probably get fired," said keyboardist Lisa Coleman in Spin’s oral history of Purple Rain. "He was like, ‘What if Mick Jagger sees you?'"

Prince channeled that certainty into his music videos, even the ones he wasn't technically directing. He'd created his own image — why trust it to anyone else? And why should he? So far, he'd always known best. When people gave him notes, he either ignored them, stared them down, or deflected. According to the LA Weekly, in a meeting with David Geffen, he simply murmured, "I wear green shoes." Groaned Geffen, "What the hell does that mean?"

Prince froze out the label's hired directors, ordering them not to speak to him unless he spoke first. According to producer Beth Broday in Billboard, he’d wave them off with, "Just shoot me doing what I do.” When Prince felt like giving more details, he'd add, "Just get a stage, a crew, a bunch of cameras, a bunch of smoke, and some doves," or, "Paint a room purple and get a bathtub and some candles." Then he'd take over and direct the video himself. He made the supposed director of "When Doves Cry" sit outside the shoot and read magazines.

"He would never have hired, say, David Fincher, because when you hired Fincher, Fincher was in charge," said Warner Bros. Records creative director Jeff Ayeroff in Billboard. "Prince wouldn’t allow that."

No one said no to Prince, not even when he was micromanaging someone else's song. During a meeting with director Mary Lambert about about Sheila E.'s video for "The Glamorous Life," Prince whispered something to his manager, who then announced, "Prince says Sheila should have drumsticks on her pants." They left the room, and Ayeroff blurted, "Mary, she better not be wearing fucking drumsticks on those pants." Sheila E. wore fucking drumsticks on her pants.

"He would mess with directors," said longtime producer Simon Fields. He'd shoot two videos for one song, like for "Raspberry Beret,' splicing them together however he wanted. And then he opened the video with a strange cough. "I just did it to be sick, to do something no one else would do," he explained.

So when Prince flew to the Côte d'Azur to star in the gigolo comedy Under the Cherry Moon, no one was surprised when the movie's director, Mary Lambert of the drumsticks-pants disaster, quit.

"Given his definite views and desires, I decided to politely bow out and begin my next film while this one proceeds with Prince as director," wrote Lambert in a terse press release reported by Variety at the time. Soon after, costar Terence Stamp quit, too.

Prince knew something about making a movie. When Warner Bros. refused to fund Purple Rain, he took out a loan to do it himself. And when Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli budgeted a month to shoot the music scenes, imagining he'd do 20 takes for each song, Prince refused. He'd do each number three, four times at most. "If he did three takes, there was no change," admitted producer Robert Cavallo to Spin. "Within a week, we had done the four weeks' work."

Purple Rain's financial success convinced Warner Bros. to pay for Under the Cherry Moon, one of only two studio films in 1986 with a black director. (The other was Richard Pryor's Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling.) Even more, Prince was granted final cut, a privilege only granted to the Mount Olympus of directors — Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, and Martin Scorsese — not a 27-year-old rock star who hadn't directed a feature in his life.

You can make a hit song in a day. A movie is harder. Not that Prince changed his habits. He shot most of the film in one take. Even with the drama of losing both his original director and costar, he finished Cherry Moon under time and under budget.

People hoped for Purple Rain 2. But what no one realized until Cherry Moon and its accompanying album Parade came out is that Prince wanted to make anything but Purple Rain 2. In his music and style, he'd already evolved past that from romantic ruffled shirts to clean-cut hair and black buttoned trousers.

"I don't want to make an album like the earlier ones," said Prince. Or a movie. Cherry Moon is a refusal of Purple Rain and his hyper-sexed, money-crazy persona. He wasn't playing himself. He was playing a character — for the first and only time in his career. Sure, that character was a male courtesan (with the curious name "Christopher," as though the boy literally born "Prince" wanted to test banality), but at the end of the film, he kills off his lustful self. He barely even sings, chopping off songs midway through and including only two proper musical numbers, one of which rolls over the final credits.

Though Prince is one of the rare performers who can actually play the piano, when the camera watches him play a baby grand, Prince won't even show his hands. On-screen, the real-life keyboard genius looks as fake as a soft-core actress miming through a nightclub scene. Instead, all of the attention is on his face, or really, those kohl-rimmed eyes, which he bats with the control of a silent movie vamp. But the best thing about his performance is when the until-then reserved and dour Prince finally smiles. He even cracks dumb jokes. This is the Prince he'd never felt comfortable showing people — the silly weirdo who jokingly threatens his landlady with his "Bela Lugosi look," all quivering eyebrows and Dracula voice.

Here's what happens when you give a maddening, stubborn, self-driven artist final cut: You get a film like Prince himself — a genre mishmash that breaks the rules. Like Prince's albums that welded funk and pop and R&B and sex and religion into one impassioned yelp, Under the Cherry Moon refuses to be contained. It's a black-and-white sex romp that sees the world through Prince's eyes; everyone is overdressed and glamorous the way that he was overdressed and glamorous. In the same way he demanded 24/7 style from his band, every extra is fabulous, from the butlers in powdered wigs to the crazy, champagne-drinking children with wild, teased hair. The continental accents aren't real, the walks are unnatural, the dialogue is arch and bizarre, What critics gleefully took as sloppiness was actually deliberate design. Prince had spent his career asking us to step into his outrageous fantasies. Only in film did we refuse.

Critics hated Under the Cherry Moon. Prince's directorial debut earned him the worst reviews of his career. Cherry Moon was blasted as "pompous," "galling," "snotty," "blithe," "controlling," "presumption," "pretentiousness," "vanity," "pubescent," "sublime self-absorption," "adolescent," "posturing," "flagrantly self-conscious," "amateurish," "unalloyed gall," "flaunting," "an obvious misfire," "easy to laugh at or ignore," and a "black hole of artistic presumption" – and that was just in one Film Journal review.

"Now everyone can laugh and hoot at the goofy little guy and not feel the least bit guilty," hooted another critic in Boxoffice Magazine. They didn't engage with the film itself, not even the fascinating racial politics of a broke kid from Miami crashing French society, introducing Kristin Scott Thomas's posh white heiress to his do-rag, and threatening to screw her so hard she'll "get black," he claims, moaning, "Oh Christopher! Oh shit!" Instead, the attacks felt personal, the way they always do when a superstar dreams of doing too much. It happens to musicians who make movies, like Prince and Madonna. And it happens to actors who want to be musicians, like Keanu Reeves and Jared Leto. As a culture, we prefer people to stay in their box. If they make any mistakes in their quest for creative growth, we swat them down so publicly that most never dare to make enough mistakes to get better. (Please, OutKast, make another oddball movie.)

Four years later, Prince made Graffiti Bridge, which unlike Cherry Moon truly is terrible. His clunky sequel to Purple Rain mimics Spike Lee's bright colors and quirky comedy without understanding what makes them work. The reviews for Graffiti Bridge were even worse. Prince was punished for his ego — how dare he think he can make music and movies?

So Prince stopped making films. Then he stopped sharing his visions, shooting music video after music video for an audience of none.

There could be an auteur hiding in that vault. At the very least, there's a creative soul who tirelessly kept making things for himself, the audience he trusted most. Besides, he'd already defended his ego in Under the Cherry Moon during a seductive waltz with Kristin Scott Thomas. "It must be easy to float with a head as swelled as yours," she chides. Prince refuses to take the insult. He grins, "Big as a balloon so I can touch the clouds."