BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC Andrew’s Video Vault presents a pair of semi-lost 80s rock films are on the bill Thursday night January 12th at the Rotunda in West Philly: Prince’s 1987 theatrical concert film Sign O’ the Times and Brian Gibson’s 1980 rise and fall of a British post-punk star Breaking Glass with Hazel O’Connor, in its extended U.K. Cut. It’s easy to see 1987’s double-album Sign O’ the Times as Prince’s cultural pinnacle, propelling three songs into the Top Ten and raising Prince’s star even higher in Europe. The concert market was weaker in the U.S. than oversea though and Prince was anxious to get his post-Revolution band into the studio so it was decided that a film would be made on the European tour to take the place of U.S. dates. That footage was mostly scrapped as too dark and grainy and the show, with Prince’s new band now well-rehearsed and smoking hot, was re-staged at the studios of Paisley Park.
Prince made three fictional musicals over his career (the monster-hit Purple Rain, the black and white Parisian period piece, Under the Cherry Moon and the pastel-laden Purple Rain sequel, Graffiti Bridge) but most would agree that the high points of each of these films is when Prince is performing. Sign O’ the Times lets the late musician’s fan gorge on those moments. Many of the songs are separated by the band in neon spaces pantomiming scenes of love or anger with a bespectacled Prince observing but those little dramatic moments are less engaging than the drama the takes place on stage. Never do you get the sense this is just a band going through their catalog, the performances are full of inventive staging and loaded theatrical asides, with mock fights, jazz jam sessions, and the dancer Cat Glover and Prince and acting out a number of sexually preposterous mini-scenarios over the course of the film’s 13 songs.
Sheila E unleashes a crazy drum workout, Bonnie Pointer drops in to wail a little but no one is going to upstage Prince, casually burning like Hendrix, testing the seams of every crazy jumpsuit he sports (I lost count), and squealing like a banshee through the fervent gospel closer, “The Cross.” Few concert films have served their subjects so well, Sign O’ the Times is pure purple heaven for Prince fans.
Did Prince ever see Breaking Glass, a rise and crash musical drama made in the post-punk moment of 1980? Produced four years before the similarly-plotted Purple Rain, the gritty British film follows a struggling musician whose life, love, and madness bleed on and off-stage. Like Purple Rain, Breaking Glass was blessed to have a real life musician and performer in the lead, Hazel O’Connor, who gives a nervy and unpredictable performance. Musicians have a unique charisma that is different from actors and having a real musical performer in the lead, (O’Connor was already a seasoned performer at 25, when she made the film) singing her own songs, gives the film an authentic energy.
O’Connor plays Kate and the action begins with a small-time record promoter Danny (Phil Daniel, star of another ’80s British rock film, Quadrophenia) spotting her talent at Kate’s semi-disastrous bar gig and offering to be her manager. Asking her influences Kate says, “I’m not punk, but I’m influenced by punk” verbally staking out the ground that music critics would soon label “Post Punk.” Spiritually her style springs from the scene although it owes just as much to the music of Bowie (Bowie’s producer Tony Visconti produced the soundtrack, which went on to be a major U.K. Hit). Together they assemble a band (with Brazil‘s Jonathan Pryce in his second film role and Gary Tibbs, bassist for The Vibrators) and they climb the U.K. show biz ladder, dealing with dumb record executives, crooked club owners and an increasingly unruly fan base. Giving the film an eerie modern relevancy, the film paints a disturbing picture of the birth of Thatcher’s conservative movement, with neo-Nazis popping up at shows and at one point rioting during a Rock Against Racism-type of concert, something Kate bravely confronts while slowly losing her sanity in the gears of commerce.
The film made O’Connor a star in U.K. (an unsigned Duran Duran opened for her tour after the film’s release) where she still records today. First-time director Brian Gibson went on to direct two very popular biopics about women performers, HBO’s 1991 production The Josephine Baker Story and the 1993 Tina Turner biopic, What’s Love Got To Do With It. In the U.S. Breaking Glass gained a cult following, mostly from repeated screenings on the USA Network’s late night show, Night Flight. While the U.S. version unmercifully shortened the film by cutting out its final ten minutes, for The Rotunda screening we’ll be watching the rare full-length U.K. version.