Friday, July 3, 2009

Seven lessons learned from Prince's "Graffiti Bridge" soundtrack

I’ll confess right up front that I’ve never seen Prince’s 1990 film Graffiti Bridge in its entirety. I’ve never read a single good word about the movie, and as a big fan of Purple Rain, I’ve always feared that watching the sequel would taint my appreciation of the original. (I’ve also never watched Purple Rain while even remotely sober, which may contribute to my belief that it’s a cinematic masterpiece.)

I do, however, own the Graffiti Bridge album, a weird piece of work even by Princely standards. It’s not an awful album by any means. As Prince soundtrack albums go, it ranks well below the flawless Purple Rain and the minor classic Parade (Music from the Motion Picture Under the Cherry Moon), but considerably above Batman. Whereas the first two would stand alone as excellent albums even if you didn’t know the films existed, the songs on Graffiti Bridge sound very much like pieces of a larger, disjointed narrative. It’s a mishmash of guest stars, skit-songs and tonal shifts whose whole is rather less than the sum of its parts.

Still, it’s an interesting listening experience with some scattered but worthwhile highlights. On my most recent spin, I realized that Graffiti Bridge even has a few things to teach us, some more vital than others.

Want to underline your sequel’s inferiority? Open with a weak knock-off of the original.

When Prince was writing “Can’t Stop This Feeling That I Got,” he was probably consciously trying to create a musical link between Purple Rain and Graffiti Bridge. Trouble is, he did it too well. His opening track sounds so much like “Let’s Go Crazy” (minus the awesome spoken-word preamble) that my primary reaction to it is to wonder why I’m not just listening to “Let’s Go Crazy” instead.

The concept of Prince featuring George Clinton is way cooler on paper.

There’s no question that Clinton’s brand of whacked-out space funk was a major influence on young Prince, but there’s also a considerable difference between their sounds. A confluence of these two powerhouses should have shaken the music world to its very foundation. Instead, “We Can Funk” is a pretty decent entry in the Prince dance track canon. The most Clinton-esque elements to be found are a long group chant toward song’s end and the awesome/atrocious lyric “I’m testin’ positive for the funk / I’ll gladly pee in anybody’s cup.”

Place them side by side and Morris Day can easily upstage Prince.

This should come as no surprise to anyone who’s seen Purple Rain or heard an early record by The Time, but Morris Day is one of the great showmen of his era. As wild and weird as Prince can be, Morris brings so much more manic energy to his couple of tracks, especially “Release It.” Granted he’s not half the musical genius Prince is, but when Morris starts bossing his "stellas" around and stealing nookie from his side men, I find myself wishing Graffiti Bridge had been his vehicle rather than his benefactor’s.

Once upon a time, there was Tevin Campbell.

Remember Tevin Campbell? That sweet-voiced pretty boy who ruled the R&B charts in the early ‘90s? He’s part of the bizarre Graffiti Bridge entourage, and he’s rather awesome. His “Round and Round” is both one of the best tracks on the album and a more enjoyable effort than Campbell’s future work. By this point, the Prince-Michael Jackson feud was pretty well wound down, but it would be easy to read Prince’s championing of a charismatic child star with a voice soulful beyond his years as one last shot across the bow.

Mavis Staples can do no wrong.

Prince being Prince, he probably could have recruited Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner or another top-tier mega diva to fill this role (he did allegedly pitch the part to Patti LaBelle). Instead he went with the less iconic but equally skilled Mavis Staples, and her brassy, classy presence gives the album just the boost it needs in its saggy second half. Her “Melody Cool” is an undeniable highlight of Graffiti Bridge, a swaggering slab of soul that’s one of the few blatantly cinematic moments that translates gracefully onto wax.

Prince should never dabble in hip-hop.

Sadly, Prince viewed the half-assed flow shoehorned into “New Power Generation (Part II)” not as a failed experiment in genre-bending, but as the gateway to several albums’ worth of hip-hop flirtation. It’s all pretty embarrassing stuff. “Cocaine was a thing that I took on / and Nowhere was a place that I was goin’”? Really?

“Thieves in the Temple” is no “When Doves Cry,” “Graffiti Bridge” is no “Purple Rain.”

Don’t get me wrong – Graffiti Bridge’s big single is a damned good song, maybe even a great one. But unlike its predecessor, it’s just not sturdy enough to hang an entire album and feature film on. As for the title track, it’s little more than a pleasant coda, utterly lacking in the majesty and passion of “Purple Rain.” You know that famous scene at the end of the first film, where Prince’s guitar neck erupts during the fadeout of “Purple Rain,” dousing the crowd with highly suggestive sparks? “Graffiti Bridge” is more like half-hearted wanking with no money shot.

- Ira Brooker

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