Under the Cherry Moon (Blu-ray Review)7 Nov, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Stars Prince, Kristin Scott Thomas, Morris Day, Steven Berkoff.
I have a movie buff friend who has always been all things 1940s, to the exclusion of much else and certainly the rock-and-roll music that knocked Dick Haymes off the charts. As a result, I was surprised to hear that he was a big fan of Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It, a movie so essential to the pioneer rock-pic ethos that even Edmond O’Brien (playing a gangster named “Fats” Murdock) gets to sing something in it called “Rock Around the Rock Pile” — a tune which, in an ideal world where real virtue is rewarded, might have been characterized as “No. 1 with a mallet.” When I asked my friend how his love for Girl had come to be, his perfect deadpanned response was: “Where else can you get Little Richard photographed by Leon Shamroy?”
You can get some of the same fringe benefits from Under the Cherry Moon, Prince’s flop follow-up second feature to Purple Rain and a film that tied with Howard the Duck for top honor in 1986’s Razzies competition when there were far more deserving contenders. I don’t know what’s more surprising: that star/director Prince, who took over filmmaking duties from Mary Lambert, elected to do a story with a French Riviera setting in next-to-unheard-of ’80s black-and-white (though the picture was actually shot in color before lab refinement took over) — or his noteworthy choice for cinematographer. Which is to say that he somehow managed to get Michael Ballhaus behind the camera for the project that ended up being sandwiched between the latter’s work for Martin Scorsese on After Hours and The Color of Money. I can’t remember if I alleged any Ballhaus slumming (though that would be too harsh a term) in my original USA Today review of the picture, but I do remember the lead asserting that Under the Cherry Moon couldn’t be any loopier “if it were Under the Cherry Coke.”
To me, a lot of the last quality comes from the casting of Prince in a gigolo role that portrays him without much debate as God’s gift to women, or at least to attractive European actresses: among them Kristin Scott Thomas (in her feature debut), Francesca Annis and Alexandra Stewart. This is a stretch — though if you leave musical genius out of the equation, screen-star iconography can be a matter of taste. To this point, I remember that in Andrew Sarris’s puzzled review of Desperately Seeking Susan, he compared Madonna’s looks (on an allure level) to those of Doris Dowling — an actress who was the un-flashy younger sister of dishy Constance, also one of Artie Shaw’s 8,500 ex-wives and also the rather butch female lead in a brutal pursuit-pic I managed to see twice theatrically when I was in fourth grade: Running Target. For more faint praise, note that Prince, in a truly terrible performance, goes full-throttle lounge lizard here — suggesting the kind of presence Nils Asther or Ramon Navarro might have exuded had their careers been plunked into the Reagan era.
As it turned out, both Prince and Madonna (for Shanghai Surprise) topped the Razzie lead acting categories in ’86, with Morris Benton (as Prince’s best buddy and live-in) also taking supporting actor honors from the scholars who voted. But the Moon anti-accolade I really don’t understand is Kristin Scott’s Thomas’s supporting Razzie nomination when it was immediately obvious from this film — and I think I said so in print at the time — that she was going to be star. The actress is at least half-memorably introduced when her rambunctious rich-girl character steps up on the bandstand at her creep of a father’s gala outdoor party and gives the invitees (and us) an extended flash. Unfortunately, someone must have been worried about arousing the MPAA’s late Jack Valenti in the privacy of his screening room because we only get a tighter and quite unrevealing head shot of the actress while she’s doing this. Lost, then, was Scott Thomas’s potential opportunity to equal John Wayne’s career table-setter with his iconic dusty-street Stagecoach intro after John Ford gave the Duke’s screen resume a crucial booster shot.
As mentioned, Scott Thomas (as “Tricky”) has money, while Prince is a gigolo (worse, a piano-playing gigolo). So you can guess his initial motives — just as Tricky’s father does whenever he takes a break from his Trump-ian self-absorption to acknowledge his daughter’s existence. Dad is played by Steven Berkoff — who, though, English-born, could conceivably have cornered the market on Peter van Eyck roles after the latter’s death had the industry still been making scores of World War II dramas centered on the kind of screen German we all loved to hate (which it wasn’t by the 1980s). Berkoff will do all he can to break up the union, though he might be better off policing his own bedroom. In one scene, Prince (as “Chris”) climbs a ladder into Tricky-mom Stewart’s sleep-alone boudoir, where the half-sleeping cougar reacts as if she’s ready to get with the program.
The script — by Becky Johnston, later of that daily double for the ages: The Prince of Tides and Seven Years in Tibet — follows a familiar rhythm. Prince/Chris beds someone (or tries), then engages in some roommate banter with Benton (Crosby-Hope they’re not), delivers a musical number, beds someone else (or tries), hangs out on or near a fancy boat, performs another number … and so on. Though I love the idea of modern-era B&W movies and think that their curtailing was one of the most reprehensible teen-pandering things that most killed the movies aesthetically, I’m not at all sure that that the larkishness here wouldn’t have played as well or even better in color. But this said, Ballhaus makes everything here easy on the eye, and you don’t have to check the credits to surmise that someone great must have done the production design. Turns out it was Richard Sylbert himself, his first project after The Cotton Club (which, after the production migraines on that one, probably means that he welcomed a Mediterranean party).
The soundtrack album, called Parade, got the release jump on the movie by about six weeks and ended up getting much better reviews. This is another reason why — along with the visual cosmetics, some of the supporting casting and overall affability — I can’t dump on the movie the way so many have (though it would be a misstatement to the claim that Moon doesn’t have a cult or at least half-a-one). It helps throughout that not a whole lot of time passes until there’s another number, though we don’t actually see backup group the Revolution appearing with Prince until the end credits — an insane wrap-up that continues to tickle me but which isn’t likely to pull out a last-minute “aye” vote for anyone who’s been put off by Prince as an actor for the preceding 95 minutes. (Oh, well; in an earlier era, Haymes, Tony Bennett, Frankie Laine and Perry Como, to name four, failed to cut it as screen presences as well).
This is one of those bargain Warner catalog releases (think of those twilight Wayne Westerns like Cahill, U.S. Marshal or The Train Robbers) that has arrived without too much fanfare or the dissemination of review copies. Also newly out — individually, as here, and also in a three-title set — are a newly remastered Purple Rain and its post-Moon sequel, Graffiti Bridge, an all-out debacle that might as well have been The Day the Clown Cried, given the limited time it was in theaters. In the views of many or most, Prince’s screen high mark is the concert film Sign o’ the Times, which has never gotten a DVD or Blu-ray release in this country. But I did just find the All-Region Blu-ray import from Australia recently on eBay — good price, too.