Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Carola Dibbell
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SIGN "O" THE TIMES (1988)

****

With Prince.
Directed by Prince.
(MCA Home Video, color, 85 min.)

By Robert Christgau and Carola Dibbell

We shrugged when friends told us Prince's Sign "O" the Times was the greatest rock concert movie ever. There are limits to how great a rock concert movie can be, and we figured Jonathan Demme's--and Talking Heads'--Stop Making Sense had stretched them as far as they were liable to go. But even though Sign "O" the Times was directed by the artiste, whose previous cinematic exploits haven't exactly put him in Demme's class, Prince has come up with a contender. Where Demme goes for a sinuous, almost elegant clarity, Prince's movie is all murk, scuzz, steam, and, oh yeah, sex. With all due respect, which one sounds more like a real rock concert to you?

Shot in Paris, unfortunately, the performance consists almost entirely of songs from Prince's 1987 album of the same name, but where the record was an overdubbed one-man show with a minimum of sidepeople, the stage here is almost as crowded as at a classic P-Funk jam. The band is Prince's usual integrated circus, including Sheila E. on drums ("pretty good for a girl," says Prince, relieving us of the responsibility), old reliable Dr. Fink on synthesizers, roly-poly gospel shouter Boni Boyer on organ, and Cat as the latest in Prince's endless succession of sex kittens (she can box with her breasts). There are also two dancing and singing male sidekicks whose major function is to fill out the choreographed low-life vignettes (notes for videos, call them) that weave through almost every number. AndSheena Easton shows up convincingly fresh and nasty for her own part in "You Got the Look."

The costumes are post-underwear, the set the same street scene that's on the cover of the album. The camera isn't above zeroing in on just the right neon sign to punctuate/illustrate a song, and where so many concert films try to white out the tawdry lighting that comes with the territory, Sign "O" the Times makes a virtue of it: many of the shots are garishly yet abstractly monochrome, another way Prince immerses in his milieu rather than transcending it. In the end, we still prefer Stop Making Sense. But not by much.

Video Review, Apr. 1988