Paying Tribute to ‘Sign o’ the Times,’ Prince’s Lost Concert Movie Masterpiece
It’s a crime that Sign o’ the Times, a 1987 concert film about Prince’s European tour that summer, is unavailable on streaming services or DVD or Blu-ray in the United States. That’s because it’s the artist’s most eloquent and erotic cinematic expression of sex and love. At least that’s how I described it in a review I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer when it was released in November 1987. And much as I love both Purple Rain and Under the Cherry Moon, I feel the same way about Sign o’ the Times 29 years later.
Prince — whose untimely death last week left his legions of fans reeling — directed this phantasmagoric meditation, editing together concert footage with some hallucinatory sequences filmed at his Paisley Park Studios in Chanhassen, Minnesota.
Offstage, Prince presents himself as an oracle fondling a luminous sphere that suggests a crystal ball. Onstage, the man in the cropped jacket and tight, tight trousers, which make him look like a psychedelic mariachi musician, navigates the realm of the symbolic. The movie’s title includes the word “sign,” and Prince is literal here: Above the stage where Prince and his band perform are a neon heart and a cross and signs that flash “sex” and “love.” From certain camera angles, heart and cross merge and align with a nearby peace sign.
When I first saw this concert film — one that ranks high in my pantheon, alongside The Last Waltz, Stop Making Sense, and Fade to Black — its staging struck me as a confluence of a “love-in, a tribal powwow and a summit of the Solid Gold dancers.” And then I listened to the music as hard as I looked at the visuals. (Many of the tracks come from Prince’s 1987 double album Sign o’ the Times.) Hadn’t Prince cast himself both as a man of the spirit and man of the flesh, both as the man of the pulpit and also his naughtiest parishioner? His stage personas are at odds with each other, as are the jazz-gospel that uplifts and the dance-funk that says down-and-dirty.
There is mercurial Prince, at times decorously dancing with his guitar, at other times, grinding on it, sexually provoking his drummer, Sheila E., as she coyly twirls drumsticks like a majorette. There is Prince, gyrating with singer Sheena Easton to the sexy war dance “U Got the Look.” He enjoys playing the seducer, celebrating a woman as “Hot Thing,” promising her “Slow Love.” In a sudden turnabout, he is noncommittal, distancing himself with “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man.”
In other moods he is a devil, shaking the neck of his guitar as though it were his tail. Or an angel, singing the hymn called “The Cross.” The song in which Prince reconciles all the emotional, spiritual, and musical dualities is the ballad “Forever in Your Life.” I experienced this as Prince sanctifying sex, while at the same time praying to God.
So, why is Sign o’ the Times — an essential article of faith for the Purple One — available in both Canada and the United Kingdom, but unobtainable in the U.S.? Often this happens when the musical rights for a film cannot be cleared for DVD release in a specific region. We have calls into the copyright holders to see if this distribution knot can ever be untangled.