Thirty years after its Film Festival debut, Prince’s legendary concert movie escapes music rights limbo just in time to make the perfect late addition to our lineup.
Screened as part of NZIFF 2018
“To watch Sign O’ the Times now, in the wake of Prince’s shocking death, is to experience all of his gifts at once, with an intensity so fierce it tempts the boundary between pleasure and neural shutdown. Here, in 85 incandescent minutes, is proof that all those otherworldly talents – that voice, that guitar playing, that style – somehow all fit inside the same physical being, a circumstance that would have been implausible had he been eight feet tall instead of just a hair over five. Although it was filmed in different locations and Prince’s frequent costume changes suggest significant breaks between songs – it takes time to switch from Spandex overalls and a white fur coat to a jean jacket and a policeman’s cap – it nonetheless feels live in a way concert movies rarely… You’re not just watching a performance; you’re seeing music being made.
The movie, which Prince also directed, has wisps of a story floating through it, vignettes in which members of his band play out romantic conflicts while Prince watches pensively through wire-rimmed glasses, but they’re fleeting distractions in the face of the far more enthralling story told by the music. Nearly all of the songs are taken from the sprawling double album of the same name, with the exception of ‘Little Red Corvette’ and a version of Charlie Parker’s ‘Now’s the Time’ that culminates in a ferocious Sheila E. drum solo. (“Not bad – for a girl,” Prince quips when he introduces her, his wry drawl undercutting the sexist qualifier.) There’s a certain perversity in leaving established hits like ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘1999’ on the cutting-room floor, and that may account for why Sign fizzled at the box office… But Prince had just severed ties with his longtime backing band, the Revolution, and omitting the songs most closely associated with them gives the movie the feeling of a fresh start. Besides, audience had already seen him play those songs in Purple Rain, and Prince never showed any interest in repeating himself.” — Sam Adams, Slate