Sign O’ the Times was the second film Prince directed after the cult oddity Under the Cherry Moon, which was a disastrous flop. The soundtrack album, Parade, was a massive hit no doubt due to the single “Kiss.” Instead of making another narrative film, Prince decided it was about time to make a concert film. Originally Purple Rain director Albert Magnoli shot some footage, but it wasn’t usable so in the end it was reshot in the party room at Paisley Park studios. The finished film is credited to Prince, but who knows exactly who was the final director here.
The set list is made up almost entirety of songs from his then-most recent album Sign O’ the Times, which besides a couple singles off Lovesexy, primarily the song “Alphabet St.,” was the point most people stopped buying Prince albums. The music became far less innovative, and the bands he had during the ’80s were simply just much better.. The band here is not the Revolution, but obtains some members from that band and also some of Sheila E.’s band, including Shelia E. herself on the drums. The only songs not off Sign O’ the Times performed are a quick rendition of “Little Red Corvette” and a cover version of Charlie Parker’s “Now’s the Time,” which is a showcase for the band, Prince isn’t involved with that. They did play many of Prince’s other songs, such as “Kiss,” “1999,” “Purple Rain,” “When Doves Cry” and “Let’s Go Crazy” but to this day the full footage from the session hasn’t been released.
The recording of the concert at Paisley Park itself is an interesting hodgepodge of presumedly some live sound, but some say it’s completely lip-synched from the shows they recorded in Holland and Belgium. The Sign O’ the Times tour only hit Europe: infamously, Prince’s more recent records were slightly more successful at the time over there. Anyway, if it is completely lip-synched, it’s pretty stunning. I would expect that Prince’s vocals are live, as are the drums, with backing tracks for everything else.
The songs are connected with some narrative segments that fit the Sign O’ the Times cycle of songs quite well. It was the closest Prince did to a real concept album during the ’80s, something he would do a few more times in the ’90s. The songs are incredibly strong and deal with social issues of the time: the first song alone touches on everything from AIDS to poverty, drugs and nuclear apocalypse (Prince, after all, made his name—at least for White audiences—on the apocalyptic party anthem “1999”). It’s the culmination of all his influences from funk, soul, punk, jazz, psychedelia etc., and I even hear touches of the Cocteau Twins in a couple of the tracks, Prince was heavily into the Cocteau Twins at the time.
In closing, it’s one of the most impressive concert films ever made, and like most iconic concert films, it’s partly manufactured via heavy overdubs or performances in studios, just like in The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. As great and charismatic as Prince was on stage, the whole performance is owned by Sheila E., who just shows how great of a drummer she is. The Blu-Ray includes a solid transfer, and the audio is available in Stereo PCM and Surround DTS HD-MA mixes. The disc is barebones, but it includes some artcards with performance shots, and comes fittingly in a purple Blu-ray case.