Prince in Purple Rain (1984)
I like some Prince songs such as Thieves in the Temple, Sign o’ the Times and a fair chunk of the mega-selling Purple Rain stuff. He had something, all right, but too often I find his music tinny and unconvincing. I also got embarrassed by the guy’s self-indulgent sulking, like writing the word slave on his face and changing his name to a symbol. Frankly, if a record company made me a multi-millionaire chick magnet and gave my music a worldwide presence, I’d cut them a bit of slack. Big picture and all that. Plus, Prince was very short and it’s hard to take such people seriously.
Anyhow, he made his acting debut beneath a lopsided, poodly hairdo in the poorly edited Purple Rain. There’s not much of a storyline here. Calling himself The Squid, sorry, The Kid, his dad slaps him around whenever he’s not snubbing female band mates or butting heads with a rival musician who wants him ousted from the nightclub, they both play at. Of course, there’s also a besotted girl, but as she’s busty and topless she gets a pass, even if she can do little more than lovingly stare at him with tears in her eyes. The Kid tries hard to be moody and enigmatic, but this is tricky given he still lives with his mum and dad, wears high-heeled boots and a frilly shirt, and mainly comes across as a large, camp child that loves nothing more than playing dress up. At least he’s managed to take the stabilizers off his purple, customized motorbike.
For the most part the multi-award winning $70m hit Purple Rain is a padded concert movie. Prince is an energetic performer on stage but fairly stiff off it. Wait till you see him try to do enraged while storming after his abusive dad. He’s about as threatening as a candy floss meerkat. Saying that, even a half-decent thesp would be sunk by Purple Rain’s pitiful level of writing. Frankly, I found it dull, its value likely to rest on how much you value Prince’s music when the guy was at his commercial peak.
Madonna in Shanghai Surprise (1986)
Just as we can safely assume Madonna is a superior singer to Sean Penn, I guess her former hubby is the better actor. However, I do believe she won an award for The Most Unsexy and Overlong Masturbation Scene courtesy of the amusingly bonkers Body of Evidence.
For the record I enjoy Madonna’s warbling. I’ve got a lot of time for fun stuff like Material Girl and Papa Don’t Preach, as well as her more sophisticated, electronica-infused efforts such as the Ray of Light album. Phenomenally successful and enduring, her impact on the late twentieth century can only be denied by the blindest of haters. I’ll chuck my hat in the ring by also declaring her an artist of some note.
Unfortunately, her Nazi-like ambition to conquer the world saw an inevitable sideways shift into the movies, a mad craving that refused to even begin to take into account her acting limitations. The result? One disaster after another. Now Madge might have survived box-office bombs like Who’s that Girl and Swept Away, but both the 6th Army’s rout at Stalingrad and Hitler’s subterranean, bug-eyed descent into suicide were probably more dignified.
So, anyway, to the 1938-set Shanghai Surprise. It’s some sort of attempt at a screwball comedy, a flick that caught an almighty bunch of flak back in the day. I don’t know why. It’s not good or anything but it’s not boring like Purple Rain. For starters I was intrigued by Penn’s sexual proclivities. Here he laments the lack of nipples on his latest half-finished piece of body art, gets whipped by a Chinese hooker’s long hair after gulping down a load of aphrodisiacs, and declares mumps ‘more fun’ than having an insistent, half-naked Madonna in his bed. Not long later he publicly let’s slip that he’s ‘never lonely with a pair of silk stockings.’
Surprise is ropey as hell, not helped by its dire George Harrison plinky-plonky, faux-oriental soundtrack and barely intelligible lyrics. The flick is also bizarrely devoid of any occupying Jap soldiers. Meanwhile, missionary nurse and ‘pious lady’ Madonna is trying to track down a shitload of opium to help wounded Chinese soldiers. We don’t get a glimpse of this lot, either. Nevertheless, I enjoyed quite a few scenes from Surprise’s continually misfiring script, especially a credibility-defying one involving a pair of interactive wicker baskets. The movie even boasts a decent ten-minute opening in which we get panicky flight from the imminent Jap invasion, blown-off hands, an opium smuggler being shot in the back, and Withnail’s less than svelte Uncle Monty doing his own stunt work. Madonna, with her ‘twin pagodas’ and ‘haven of celestial bliss’, is plastic throughout, simply unable to sell the slightest bit of emotion, but she’s not the worst performer. Still, it’s noticeable that Surprise starts dipping quality-wise as soon as she turns up. “I do not intend to be made a fool of,” she tersely informs Penn a few minutes after they meet.
Well, good luck with that, dearie.
The Kemp brothers in The Krays (1990)
I never liked the pretentiously named Spandau Ballet, a very successful London band that scored a number one hit in 1983 with the god-awful ballad, True. ‘This is the sound of my soul,’ vocalist Tony Hadley trills at one point. Yeah, well, mate, if that’s what your soul sounds like, enjoy your time in hell.
Brothers Martin and Gary Kemp, however, started to make up for their band’s deficiencies by doing a fine job impersonating those lovable Cockney rascals, the Kray twins. In particular, their eyes suggest a boundless appetite for malice, the possibility of a telepathic connection, and creeping insanity. They also like going batshit crazy. These volcanic outbursts might result in the impalement of a transgressor’s pinioned hand while accompanied by a demand for gratefulness or a pub interior being raked by submachine gun fire. Their menacing joint persona is effectively contrasted against their softly spoken, well-groomed appearance and bashful, often charming nature, especially in front of their doting mum. This incongruence is captured early on when the jealous, unstable Ronnie (Gary) picks a fight at one of their successful nightclubs. He quickly pushes a nonentity out into the street, only to be surprised by the clearly scared guy brandishing a flick-knife. “There’s no need for violence,” Ronnie counters with a disarming smile. “We’re all acting like a bunch of kids here.” Once the knife has been dropped, Ronnie whips out a sword and forces it horizontally into his victim’s mouth to inflict a Joker-style grin.
Still, we get little explanation for the depth of such OTT malevolence. The Krays is happy to show a war-torn childhood in which the boys cower underground during the Blitz while being told lurid tales about Jack the Ripper, but such colorful East End episodes hardly provide a basis for their later murderous cruelty. Perhaps some people are simply born nasty cunts. There’s no doubt, though, that the brothers end up like the two-headed baby they find exhibited in a jar of formaldehyde at a 1950s circus freak show: imprisoned, reviled, and endlessly gawped at.
Ice Cube in Boyz n the Hood (1991)
I know how white I am when I try to listen to gangsta rap like N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton. Crazy motherfucker this, pussy ass nigga that and a bit of dirty ass ho and fuck the police thrown in for good measure… Boy, its potty-mouthed hyper-aggression gets awfully tiring after a few minutes. Don’t these young urban gentlemen ever rhapsodize about rainbows and sunsets? Or, er, maybe even try to track down a melody and have a go at singing? Straight Outta Compton is the aural equivalent of being surrounded by angry, finger-pointing men while their crack-addicted neighbors have a bust-up and the gun-toting police kick over a ghetto blaster outside and bawl at everyone through a bullhorn to calm the fuck down.
After the massive success of Compton, one of N.W.A.’s main men, Ice Cube, decided his subtle charms might also be deployed to enrich moviedom. He made his debut in the smoothly directed but occasionally clunky crime drama Boyz n the Hood as a poetry-loving intellectual. Oh, all right, that’s not true. In a big surprise, he’s actually a mouthy ex-con by the name of Doughboy. He might only provide support, but his scowling, beer-guzzling presence fits in fine with an excellent cast.
Just like Once Were Warriors concentrates on male Maori dysfunction, Boyz tackles black on black violence on the garbage-strewn, blood-spattered streets of South-Central L.A. It’s very good at depicting self-defeating machismo and how gun murders have their roots in the most trivial of incidents, such as a contemptuous look, a simple car ride or territorial pissings. The drug-dealing Doughboy is a less favored son in the shadow of his college-bound brother. It’s quietly amusing how he barely says one intelligent or encouraging thing throughout. Still, he’s not beyond hope or sympathy, although it’s clear he’s a lay about with a somewhat unenlightened view of the ladies. Or as he informs a homey: “Can’t learn shit talkin’ to no stupid-ass bitch.” In a performance that veers between disdain and insults to packing heat and all out aggression, it’s beyond a resentful thickie like Doughboy to see the big picture and do something as simple as back down. The boy can’t even play dominoes nicely.
Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard (1992)
So far, I suspect my biggest achievement in life has been to avoid prison. In fact, I’m already thinking of having that success immortalized on my gravestone: Here lies Dave. He avoided prison.
Brings a tear to your eye, don’t it?
I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s pretty damned hard to get somewhere in life, let alone start breathing some rarefied air. That’s why I never quite grasp how lucky fuckers whose dreams have come true promptly piss it all away and end up as a punch line. Take Whitney Houston. Just look at her beaming and twirling in her 1987 video I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me). I hate to use a cliché like ‘full of life’ but, well, go look at that vid. Young, sexy, talented, charismatic, happy… The girl made it, all right. And then 25 years later she’s an emaciated, erratic, drugged-up half-joke slipping under that lukewarm bathtub water at the Beverly Hilton, inadvertently checking out in a slightly more dignified manner than a constipated, hamburger-engorged Elvis falling off the bog at the age of 42 with a stopped ticker.
I mean, things ain’t s’posed to go that way, are they?
Of course, it’s impossible to imagine the level of fame Whitney achieved and what it does to a person’s psyche and emotional wellbeing (an insane altitude nudged even higher by the monster success of The Bodyguard) but you do wish she could’ve said this isn’t working anymore and maybe it’s time to do something else. You see, the thought of Whitney’s demise always saddens me. Aah, if only she’d employed me on her staff and listened to the wise counsel of an absolutely fucking nobody…
Anyway, back in 1992 her popularity went into overdrive when the public spunked up more than $400m to see her feature film debut while going gaga over its stratospheric hit, I Will Always Love You. However, Bodyguard often plays more like a two-hour ego massage for that epitome of bland handsomeness, Kevin Costner. He’s a deadly serious, ultra-competent, ex-secret service bodyguard prepared to take a bullet for a client. And, of course, despite being a teetotal square and having one of the 90’s naffest haircuts, he proves irresistible to a gorgeous, multi-millionaire pop star. “I’ve never felt this safe before,” a post-coital Whitney dreamily says while lying in his manly arms. “No one could get by you.” Surprisingly, she doesn’t add: “And what a great big cock you have!”
Whitney won a Razzie for her diva-like role, but this strikes me as unfair. As expected, she is convincing during the songs. She also manages to handle stuff like being flirty, capricious, sarcastic, charming, snarky and defiant quite well. She even chucks in the odd surprise by turning the air blue on more than one occasion (“No fucking freak’s gonna run me off stage!”) I also liked her laying into Costner while hung-over as he smugly sips his orange juice. “Probably never had a heavy night in your whole damned disciplined life,” she snaps from behind dark glasses. “You’re a self-righteous sonuvabitch!”
Nevertheless, the movie has flaws, like her staff deciding to call in Costner rather than the cops after she’s sent dozens of whacked out letters and someone breaks into her mansion and shoots his wad over her bed. Bodyguard is sporadically good at capturing the madness of mega-celebrity life but slips up by having her appear unrecognized at length in a public bar. Is she a superstar or not? The stalker is also characterized to a non-existent degree while there’s a bafflingly unnecessary rescue of a child. None of this is Whitney or her dazzling teeth’s fault, though. Yes, Bodyguard is romantic, cliched, OTT pap, at times both implausible and ridiculous, but I must admit I enjoyed it. It’s as Hollywood as it gets.
The Spice Girls in Spice World (1997)
Gary Glitter had a cameo in Spice World before his rapid fall from grace resulted in its removal. After watching this leaden travesty, I can only assume he feels at least he dodged one bullet during an otherwise very unfortunate time.
Like the vastly overrated Hard Day’s Night, Spice World is pure fluff and just as difficult to sit through. To be fair, it’s not aimed at a middle-aged grump like me and the girls do mock themselves, but there’s no artistic reason for its self-indulgent existence, except to capitalize on the group’s success and promote the next song. Or as one of them says in a girl power-undermining aside: “My money’s my best friend.” Spice World, filmed a year before Ginger fucked off from her so-called besties, is more a series of sketches than an actual narrative, packed with flat cameos, fantasy inserts, impersonations and a prevailing inability to dredge up a laugh from anywhere. Its only surprise is to present the girls from the first frame onward as unfailingly dumb and trivial. Most disappointingly, at no point do they have a lingerie-clad pillow fight. All in all, I would have preferred the Glitter cameo kept and the Spice Girls edited out. Twenty-five years later Spice World is only gonna appeal to the gormless tweens that pestered their parents to see it in the first place.
Eminem in 8 Mile (2002)
Feisty little white fucker best sums up Rabbit, Eminem’s character in this Detroit-set drama. He gets in a bouncer’s face, fires paintballs at a cop car, bounces back from a beating and tries to make a rapping name for himself in a black, hyper-masculine world. “This is hip hop,” he’s told by a black opponent in an onstage rap battle. “You don’t belong. You’re a tourist.” Seconds later, Rabbit chokes, unable to respond with even one word in this public dissing contest, and is laughed off stage. His mind-numbing factory job and dreary trailer park home life don’t offer much respite, either. Mom’s a bit hopeless and her new boyfriend is a dick. Only two things keep him going: protecting his vulnerable little sis and a pervasive dream of snagging a record deal.
I have to say there’s something faintly daft about grown men taking part in rap battles in which they colorfully insult each other in rhyme. Yes, it’s a healthy release of negative energy and requires an amazing burst of quick thinking, but surely serious rappers prefer to murder rivals in a drive-by? After all, that’s the way it’s been done for decades. How else do you get respect and show you really mean it in such an ocean of machismo? 8 Mile wants to be all urban and gritty, but it’s built on polystyrene. Rabbit not only possesses the wrong skin colour, but sticks up for gays. What sort of rapper is this? In real life me-thinks he’d end up in a stew.
However, despite 8 Mile’s inherent silliness, the non-smiling, beanie-clad Eminem is good. Sure, he’s essentially playing a version of himself, but as Prince showed, this isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. He holds the center well in a dick-swinging flick that feels like a cross between Saturday Night Fever and Blue Collar while not being as good as either. Its climactic rap battle wants to be the equivalent of Rocky vs. Apollo but falls about eight miles short. Still, it offers an occasionally interesting glimpse into a different world, and it’s a shame Eminem never followed up on its runaway success.
Right, time for my nap.
Dave Franklin’s movie guide Go Fuck an Iceberg! A Brit’s Take on Guns, Tits and Other Fun Movie Stuff is now on sale at Amazon.