Sign 'o' the Times
May 21, 2018
Levi Seacer, Jr.
1 Hr., 24 Mins.
n 1987, Prince was an artist in flux. Considering the resounding success he'd just seen, this was perhaps a surprise. Three years earlier, he'd become pop-culturally rife with the album/film Purple Rain, which dominated box offices and record stores internationally. In a rather short timespan, he had gone from burgeoning, subversive mainstream talent to fully formed musical polymath. His every move thrilled. Go the traditional route — tour relentlessly
for a handful of months, wait out a full album cycle, and then do it all over again — and maybe he’d be able to ride off the fumes of Purple Rain for the rest of his career. Such a statement, comparable to similarly omnipresent blockbuster
opuses, from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours (1977) to Michael Jackson's Thriller (1982), is one that can make a legacy.
But as the following decades would prove, Prince never did things the way they were “supposed” to be done. Sixth months into the Purple Rain tour, he decided he had enough, throwing in the towel prematurely. Behind the scenes, he worked on Around the World in a Day, an album which would be released in early 1985, get mixed reviews, and do OK commercially. Then he would release Parade (1986), an LP which was warmly received but then mared when it later acted as the soundtrack for Under the Cherry Moon, a bomb of an old Hollywood pastiche in which Prince starred and worked as director. In just a few years, this otherworldly musical iconoclast proved himself courageous but inconsistent — a riveting performer who nonetheless could not always back his ambitions with entirely cohesive musical and cinematic communiqués.
Nineteen-eighty-seven would see the release of the riskiest — and arguably best — album of his career, the double LP Sign ‘o’ the Times. The record, almost 80 minutes long, was musically audacious and conceptually undaunted — an unprecedented blend of social consciousness and identity colored by off-center musical ideas. Three of its singles became top 10 hits, and critics were ecstatic. But in America, it commercially plateaued pretty quickly; it was a bigger success in Europe, where Prince toured extensively.
In the face of dropping sales, Prince, in a sort of last-ditch effort for a U.S. boost, compiled live footage promoting the material, which would ultimately become a 84-minute concert film named after the album. Like the LP, the cinematic Sign ‘o’ the Times is one of the defining, yet inexplicably most overlooked, moments of Prince’s career: It's an atomic encapsulation of a musician at his most enthusiastic and driven. But whereas the album version of Sign ‘o’ the Times was underrated but never entirely hard to get one’s paws on — I recently purchased the record at a Brobdingnagian music store an hour from my house — its cinematized counterpart has so often been passed over in part due to the fact that it has been so difficult to view. Since 1991, it has been out of print in the United States.
After Prince died in 2016, Showtime acquired the rights of the feature and was able to debut it on television in the fall of 2017. Shortly afterward, it became available to rent or stream on digital platforms. Watching Sign ‘o’ the Times, which Prince also directed and wrote, it is evident that this is not only a gem in its headliner’s career, but also a crown jewel in the concert movie genre as a whole. Transportive yet metaphysical in the same way the Talking Heads’ category-defining Stop Making Sense (1984) was, it is a powerful declaration where the euphoria of music transcends the conventionalities of narrative, acting.
The film watches Prince and his comparably chameleonic acolytes — comprising drummer Sheila E., dancer and singer Cat Glover, guitarist Miko Weaver, keyboardist and crooner Boni Boyer, and others — bring Sign ‘o’ the Times almost completely, from beginning to end, to the stage. (Only three tracks are left out; inclusions of songs from other albums are not in the mix.) And it’s electrifying. To watch Prince, along with his entourage (Sheila E. is particularly astounding), perform is to experience overwhelming, preternatural musical talent. Whether we will see an assemblage of this caliber of talent come together like this again is an enigma. So to have it captured, with such cinematic grandeur to boot, is something worth savoring.
Perhaps inevitably, given how Prince’s popularity was sluggishly waning at the time, the theatrical litany of Sign ‘o’ the Times wasn’t fire-starting. It hardly helped boost album sales in the way its star, writer, and director had wanted. It fortunately became a success when it was released on video, and has come to progressively be regarded as one of the finest examples of the concert movie genre.
Yet it remains an oft-ignored piece of Prince’s career, a watershed moment that fell through the cracks. And it shouldn’t be this way. Something tells me, vis-à-vis increasingly renewed public interest, that this could change. If you consider yourself a Prince fan and still haven’t seen Sign ‘o’ the Times, though, eye think it’s time 4 U 2 click “rent” on Amazon, iTunes — wherever. A