Sign O' The Times: The concert film

23:03, Apr 29 2012

The good folk at Madman sent me a copy of Sign O' The Times on DVD. It replaces the bootleg copy I picked up in Sydney a few years ago - a very lazy copy from a washed-out VHS. This new transfer is sharp.

It was a bit of a treat to sit down with this old favourite one more time. Along with Stop Making Sense, The Last Waltz and The Song Remains The Same, Sign O' The Times is one of my all-time favourite concert films. As with the others I've named, I have lost count of the number of times I've watched it.

I first saw it when I was about 12 years old - I was a Prince fan but I'd not actually heard the Sign' O The Times album.

The first thing that struck me about this concert-film, about the band, was Sheila E.

She was the star of the show for me. There was Cat and there was Prince - and there were other talented musicians on stage (they all got to showcase their skills, sans Prince, with the cover of Charlie Parker's Now's The Time). My VHS copy of Sign O' The Times had wavy lines through that bit, the sound started to jump during Sheila E's drum solo. I had watched that portion of the concert so many times: pause/rewind/play/pause/rewind/play. I would call out to mum or dad or my brother - I would want them to see it. I would play just that part of the gig for friends after school or in weekends. They really didn't care all that much.

The other big star of the show - apart from Prince most obviously - is the music. The songs. Here was a bunch of tunes I did not know (apart from a snippet of Little Red Corvette from the earlier 1999 album). But I was hooked straight away. And though I love the Sign O' The Times album - Prince's version of something like Sly & The Family Stone's There's A Riot Goin' On perhaps - I prefer a lot of the individual versions from the concert film.

Play In The Sunshine really comes alive following on from the title-track opener, Forever In My Life (interpolating part of the song It) feels a lot better as a group singalong on stage rather than as an underwhelming finale to one of the discs. The organ intro to Hot Thing, Prince's dance moves too; that was a big part of it, I guess.

I was watching the concert film one more time, even though I know every second of it - and there was still a magic there. I was transported to the first time I watched it, to the weekends spent watching this - and some of the other concert films I named earlier and other music-themed movies, The Wall for example - over and over. Finish sport for the day and home to attempt some homework, then fall headlong into the musical world/s that Prince had created with Sign O' The Times.

The concert-film isn't really much of a concert - it was to be taken from a series of gigs but most of the film's performances ended up coming from soundstage re-shoots, Prince ever the control-freak deciding that he could better create the feel and flow of a flawless live show at his Paisley Park studios. It was more a case of a music video that embraced an entire album rather than just serving to promote one single; an extended music video more so than a document (sign) of the time/s.

The film was planned to promote the album, to help it sell. But it was something of a flop really - and then it took on a life of its own on VHS.

I guess - in some ways - the film exists as the coda to Prince's first decade. He didn't really put a foot wrong - musically at least (Under The Cherry Moon was a ghastly film and Prince was a horrible actor but its soundtrack - also known as the album Parade - was/is superb).

But it's shaky ground for even the most fanatic of Prince devotees after Sign O' The Times. I could tell you that there are half a dozen albums released after Sign O' The Times that I love just as much as the records released before it - and that may be true (for me) but after Sign O' The Times there was one thing that was most definitely true: it was hard work being a Prince fan.

I explored this in two earlier blog-posts: here and here - the first dealing with Prince's magical first decade (the late 1970s to the late 1980s) and the second picking up post-Sign and running through to the late 1990s, Prince's second professional decade.

Since 2004's Musicology Prince has gone back to playing Prince - it became acceptable to be a fan once again, we could breathe easy, hold our heads high.

We didn't need to mutter and mumble that bits of the "love symbol" album and most of The Gold Experience was fabulous - we could just enjoy Musicology (even if its best stuff is not a patch on the really good material from Prince's wayward and overly prolific mid-90s) and there was no longer the need to spit out the Trivial Pursuits staple: that he wrote Manic Monday for The Bangles (under the pen-name Christopher) or that he played 27 instruments and wrote Nothing Compares 2 U; that he was a great songwriter and a gifted performer and that before Michael Jackson appeared on MTV to moonwalk his way to mega-history Prince was already selling black music to white people and white music to black people, he was playing with race and sexuality, subverting stereotypes. He wasn't just controversial, he was controversy. He was dangerous. He was an incredible performer. He was an amazing musician. One of the true greats. He was, by the mid-80s, up there with the idols from the generation ahead of him - he was more important to music than many of the people he had built his act from, magpie-style.

So I thinking about all of this when re-watching Sign O' The Times. And I'll probably think about it all again the next time I watch it.

I know people that rave about Lovesexy - the album that followed Sign. A case can certainly be made for it as misunderstood/unlucky. I always get grief for this but I'm convinced his Batman soundtrack is one of the best things he ever did.

But it seems to be that Sign O' The Times is the line in the sand - there's everything before and leading up to it. And now, 25 years on - there's everything after. It's the dividing point for most people aware of Prince's music. It's the end of an era.

And in a funny way Sign O' The Times - the film - points to the downfall, the indulgences and perfectionism that would cloud his judgment; that would make him - pointedly - refuse to be the hits jukebox he had been. That would make him (continue to) follow his own muse to the point of alienating all but the die-hard fans.

I'm not going to see Prince when he plays Australia in a couple of weeks. It's a bit of a sore point. I'm very excited for all those that are going though - jealous? Yes, probably. And I'm gutted that it's not possible for me to go, the timing is off. It cannot be done. He could phone in a performance and I'm sure it would still be one of the best concerts I'd ever experienced. But it seems unlikely I'll ever see Prince live in this lifetime. A shame. Something I'm really sad about. I should be there. But I won't be. It's like a long-service medal that I'll never receive.

So to those who are going - I hope that it's everything you're expecting and more. It's gonna be a beautiful night.

And here's a great Prince documentary that might help you to get (further) in the mood and will be of interest to any other fans not going.

So are you a fan of the Sign O' The Times film? Will you be keen to check out the new DVD version?

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