Under the Cherry Moon opened on a Wednesday in 1986, well before Wednesdays became the go to weekday for “urban fare.” It opened July 2, 1986, to be exact. I’d been out of high school 5 days when a classmate of mine invited me to a movie in Times Square with some of her friends. The group was split down the middle on cinema choice: the women wanted to see Prince’s Purple Rain follow-up, and the men wanted to see something we erroneously thought would be scarier, Psycho III. The deciding outcome is easy to predict because, as luck would have it, women have vaginas. And if we didn’t do as they said, certain teenage boys would not GET those vaginas. So His Purple Badness won handily. While we were at the UA theater in Times Square with Moon’s main character, Christopher Tracy, the ceiling fell in at the theater showing Psycho III. No one was killed, but several people got chunks of plaster in their Jersey Hair and mullets. If I had to do it over again, I would rather have my fade flattened by shoddy architecture than sit through Under the Cherry Moon.
But sit through Under the Cherry Moon I did, and not just twice that day, but 12 more times over the next several years, all under what I will politely refer to as “pussy-inflicted duress.” In fact, the only time I watched Under the Cherry Moon of my own volition occurred just before I wrote the first words in this piece. The things one does for Love…and for The House Next Door.
Under the Cherry Moon is terrible, and it really didn’t have to be. With a less egotistical, more talented director and a streamlined script, this could have been one hell of an intentionally funny buddy comedy. The male leads play off each other nicely, and a scene of mistaken identity pays off hilariously. Maybe that charming picture would have resulted if Pet Sematary’s Mary Lambert got to keep the directorial reins assigned her by Warner Bros. Unfortunately, she was replaced by the film’s star. The results are a script that has no idea what it wants to be, and a director who keeps finding ways to put himself into every frame like a celluloid virus.
“A Film By Prince,” the opening credits tell us. This would be all fine and good if Prince did what you pay to see Prince do. But outside of one short number and the end credits, the only thing coming out of Prince’s mouth is bad dialogue. Songs from the Parade album, including the title track, play in the background, creating an odd disconnect between us and the film. The soundtrack, which is excellent, raises the question: Would you rather see Prince sing Parade’s best song, “Kiss,” or watch him deliver one of the most overdone, disgusting kisses while the song plays in the background?
The recipient of that kiss scored to “Kiss” is Kristin Scott Thomas, here making her debut as a 21-year old trust fund baby in Nice, France. Thomas has gone on record with her intense dislike of this picture, presumably because it must be a bitch to owe your career to Prince. But she took the role and cashed the check, so she gets no sympathy here. Thomas enters this picture flashing (unseen) full frontal nudity before performing a kick-ass drum solo. This is her only good scene, so savor it. As the object of affection, Thomas is supposed to be a cold fish set afire by the touch of her leading man, but her performance is flame-retardant. The love scenes are hilarious, especially when you realize that Prince must have had a shitload of candles in his pockets every time he went out to get laid. The characters are screwing outside, and there are more drippy ass candles around than in Catholic church. Where the hell did they come from? It’s like that scene in ZAZ’s Top Secret where the parachuting, kissing lovers are joined by a parachuting fireplace that appears next to them.
On albums, Prince is a sexy motherfucker. (Hell, he made a song called exactly that!) If you put on a slow Prince jam, panties will disintegrate. On stage, Prince is even badder. I’ve seen him three times, and the first time I did, the woman I was with—well, never mind. In Under the Cherry Moon, Prince is like Woody Allen with an Ultra Perm. He gets the girls because he’s the director. Watch the opening scene, where Prince’s gigolo, Christopher Tracy, tries to entice a rich White woman into paying for his services. Prince makes faces at her that I assume are supposed to be sexy, but all I could focus on was the Tammy Faye Baker amount of mascara he has on. Making the scene tolerable (and hinting at the Hope-Crosby style movie this could have been) is Jerome Benton’s Tricky character. He keeps sending instructive messages on napkins to Christopher Tracy. When Tracy lays it on way too thick, Tricky sends a napkin that says “OH PLEASE!”
Tricky and Tracy are partners who split Tracy’s ho money. The movie playfully hints at something more (Tricky throws flower petals in Tracy’s bathwater while he takes a bath, for starters) but that devolves into silly gay joke humor. Still, Benton and Prince have comedic potential that the film squanders in favor of a silly “tragic romance.” Thomas’ Mary Sharon character becomes Tracy’s latest mark, but he falls for her, much to the chagrin of her father, Mr. Sharon (Steven Berkoff). Both Sharon and Tracy are sleeping with Francesca Annis’ Mrs. Wellington, which pisses Mr. Sharon off almost as much as him finding out Tracy is nailing his daughter. The Mrs. Wellington character is intriguing, and had the film been about her and Tracy, it might have gone somewhere subversive (the film treats Prince’s couplings as a matter of class, not race, which is also an opportunity squandered). Annis brings a little mystery to her last scene with Prince, leaving a more lasting impression than the film’s object d’amour.
To quote Benton’s band, The Time, contrary to rumor, gigolos get lonely too. Tracy falls for Mary Sharon, causing the predictable riff between him and Tricky. This leads to a goofy car chase, an even goofier boat chase and a death scene that must be seen to be believed. All the stars got Razzie nominations, and Benton earns his here. Weeping and praying to God not to take Christopher Tracy after he’s been shot at the behest of Mr. Sharon, Benton is cringe-worthy. Since the movie ruins any suspense by telling you Tracy’s fate before the opening credits, it’s no spoiler to say Tracy’s gunshot wound is fatal. This is scored to Parade’s last track, the mournful “Sometimes It Snows in April,” where Prince basically eulogizes his onscreen character. Talk about vanity!
Besides writing the score, Prince did one other thing right in this picture: he hired Michael Ballhaus to shoot it. The man turns Nice into a picturesque black-and-white travelogue (the film was shot in color but transferred to black-and-white). Some of Ballhaus’ framing is expert and clever, and the film does look good. It’s too bad that watching it is so painful. Even if you’re watching it for love.