When we lose one of our most beloved artists, the nature of popular culture demands that we collectively pick one work to define them. Unfortunately we’ve experienced this multiple times in recent months: With Bowie, we heard “Starman” in the streets and on the stump, then with Cohen, it was “Hallelujah” late on Saturday night. This isn’t a conspiracy to deny the breadth of these artists’ respective bodies of work, but is just the way we’ve come to celebrate the creators who pass on. And when we lost Prince on April 21 of this year, it wasn’t one of his songs that the majority turned to. It was one of his films instead. Purple Rain  is where the still images were taken from—to be used in anguished tweets, on T-shirts, and in printed eulogies. Purple Rain is what was suddenly booked into multiplexes for a weeks-long run of memorial screenings. And Purple Rain is what was remastered and re-released on Blu-ray less than six months after its star had left us.
For that re-release, Purple Rain was packaged with two of the three films that Prince directed himself: Under the Cherry Moon , a one-step-too-clever riff on ’60s French romance films, which themselves riffed on American genre movies from the ’30s and ’40s (it’s probably best remembered for its extra-soft black-and-white photography, courtesy of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus); and Graffiti Bridge , which this writer must admit he has not seen yet (perhaps because it is often cited as the “unofficial sequel” to Rain, which—its legitimately raucous “concert footage” notwithstanding—is among the worst within the “movies that attempt to recapture the star-making element of Rebel Without a Cause ” subgenre.)
The third film that Prince directed, Sign “O” the Times , is another “concert film,” and much closer to the genuine article than Purple Rain. But Sign—which is not just miles ahead of the two Prince films that preceded it, but is also among the most physically kinetic and aesthetically stylized concert films ever made—hasn’t been available on home video in the US since the days of VHS. And theatrical screenings on the repertory circuit have also been rare. So we can’t pretend it’s surprising that Purple Rain is the film that received cultural canonization in the wake of the Purple One’s passing. But it would’ve been much appreciated if Sign had been granted the blessing of a wide-scale re-release as well—and so it is much appreciated that the Brattle Theatre will be playing the film this weekend to make up for it.
The reason for the quotation marks around “concert film” is because Sign might not meet the definition of one. It was ostensibly filmed during the European leg of a tour held to promote the 1987 double album of the same name. And during the occasional cutaways to the audience (dancing or raising their lighters) or the faraway long shots of Prince on the stage (with the crowd’s waving hands providing a foreground), those concerts are exactly what you’re seeing (filming occurred in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and Belgium). But for reasons that remain not entirely clarified, a significant amount of the concert was restaged and refilmed, after the fact and sans a sizeable audience, at Prince’s Paisley Park Studios in Minnesota. But whatever the explanation, this plays less like a concession to practicality than it does as a conscious aesthetic choice. Thanks to the soundstage-based side-production, the camera movement is often allowed a level of on-stage dynamism that would probably be impossible to achieve during a sold-out arena show. A sequence of shots during the performance of the title track, at the film’s start, displays a visual grammar busier than one might think possible: one camera on a crane moves past Prince, toward a close-up of his main dancer, who’s working from a platform staged above him. We stay with her until her gaze turns toward the right, toward Prince. Then we cut back to Prince, from a second camera angle, turning his own eyes toward the right. Then, from a third angle located near Prince’s microphone—the next few moments are augmented by cutaways to the crane and other angles—we watch a procession of drummers walk onto the stage. Following that is a downright Hitchcockian tracking shot, which catches each of them in a close-up—face-to-camera, one-by-one—while they’re lined up across the stage. If all of this was produced in front of a live audience, then I doubt that audience was able to see much.
Light sources are similarly made more distinct by having been (re)filmed in a soundstage environment—they bounce off each other with a clarity only possible in a controlled space. So what Sign captures onscreen is exactly what concerts of this immense size often amount to—an expansively choreographed light show. And what makes this exciting, in a cinematic sense, is a matter of comparison. The camera angles and color palettes used in most other concert movies dilute the effect of stage lighting and set design to such an extent that you barely register them. With Sign, though, the light-show is the lifeblood. The vast majority of songs performed come from the Sign album itself, which sees Prince orchestrating collisions of form in almost every track—rock and pop and soul and jazz and the blues and devotional music, all layered atop one another, fading in and out like the multiple exposure-style edits utilized throughout this movie. But the film also sees each track given its own specific color scheme, with neon being the one constant element of the aesthetic (each song also gets its own costume design: Robert Christgau dubbed the movie’s fashion, which is perhaps best defined by Prince’s overall-style cutouts, as being “post-underwear”).
A back alley soundstage used for interstitial skits sees bricks and trash illuminated by purple and blue club signs; the shouting of “Housequake” is matched by flashing blazes of blood red; the horny-poppy “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man” is all lit up with a rainbow of rotating color tints and a full menu of electrified neon lights; and “Hot Thing,” which basically sweats, sees Prince and his dancers moving in and out of silhouettes, as close to turning the lights off as the film ever gets. And the totality of all these color shifts, each happening at high-speed, can border on the oneiric. If Sign belongs to a specific filmic lineage, it may not even be concert films—in the actual experience of watching it, it comes closer to the kaleidoscopic Italian horror pictures directed by artists like Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace ) or Dario Argento (Suspiria ), or to modern neon-tinted art house features like Enter the Void  or Spring Breakers . Like those movies, Sign has the excessively pleasurable vibrancy of an overdone dye job.
It also skews away from the traditions of the concert film—and away from what’s possible in concert films when everything is being filmed live during the concert itself—by occasionally mixing spoken dialogue into the sound mix alongside the live musical performances. The dialogue is typically in service of a “story” featuring a man and woman going through an on-again-off-again breakup-thing in between Prince’s songs. But they’re not here to tell a narrative, per se, so much as they’re here to serve an atmosphere—one where romantic lines, dynamics, and boundaries are in a constant state of transition. If there is a narrative in this movie, it’s whatever beautiful thing is happening between Prince and dancer Cat Glover, who plays his partner in most of the choreography. On the title track, they dance on separate platforms, as if performing specifically for each other; on “Hot Thing,” they play out a clothes-ripping confrontation staged in front of cages; on “If I Was Your Girlfriend,” they collapse together in embrace on a giant heart, all while neon signs brandishing “sex” and “love” fill their background. What’s happening between them, in the frame, on the screen, is entirely amorphous—it’s defined not by dialogue meant to explicate, but instead by movements meant to seduce. The way this plays out on a screen could be compared to many traditions: the visual styles of silent film romances, other rock concert routines, or interpretive dance, to name only three. But there’s nothing traditional about their intersection here, nor about the rest of Sign “O” the Times. On second thought, maybe it doesn’t belong in the mythologized celebrity canon. Let Purple Rain be the movie to represent Prince. Because Sign ‘O’ the Times goes beyond the iconography. It’s a kinetic blurring of radical colors, harmonious sounds, and pure sex, all unified by the stage. It is Prince.
SIGN “O” THE TIMES. FRI 12.9–SUN 12.11. BRATTLE THEATRE. 40 BRATTLE ST., CAMBRIDGE. 9:30PM EACH NIGHT. 35MM. $11. RATED PG-13.