How Prince and Under the Cherry Moon Changed My Life

Doc filmmaker Jeanie Finlay on how Prince's music – and his gloriously camp, indulgent directorial debut – brought glamour to her teenage existence.

Whenever I hear the song “When Doves Cry” and it gets to the line “You got the butterflies all tied up,” I instinctively anticipate the syncopation of a record jump. It’s caused by the scratch that was on my battered vinyl copy of Purple Rain, which I over-played in my Teesside teenage bedroom. This was a time before YouTube, and the flaw was replicated on the mixtapes I made and decorated with glitter pens and stickers. I still anticipate that pause today, even when it’s absent, like a muscle memory, ingrained through repetition.

David Bowie, the Smiths and the Velvet Underground, these were the bands my best friend and I came to via her older brother and the records we stole from his collection. But Prince was all ours, and he threw open a big door that let in Sam Cooke, James Brown, Chaka Khan and more … He was sexy and impish and not like anything in the world our parents had ever taught us about. He wrote songs about desire and fucking and love with inventiveness and a lack of shame that was intoxicating, songs like “Darling Nikki,” that caused more than a raised eyebrow when they made it onto the family car stereo. The world felt bigger and Teesside felt like a much more glamorous place when the soundtrack was drenched in purple.

In 1986, I won a copy of Under the Cherry Moon on VHS. This was back when new videos cost about £80, so it was big deal. We almost wore the tape out. Much more flirtatious and stylized than its acclaimed and more successful predecessor, Purple Rain, I loved it unconditionally. Although clearly indulgent and camp as hell – Prince took over directing duties after he fired Mary Lambert, the original director – it is worth watching again simply to see some of the most come-hither, kohl-lined eyes ever recorded on film. That and a virtuoso art-deco performance of “Girls & Boys” and Prince snogging the face off a 21-year-old Kristin Scott Thomas in her big-screen debut. With a Dirty Rotten Scoundrels-esque caper plotline, the film is seemingly powered by the strength of his pheromones.

It also has the following scene: Flirty philanderer Christopher Tracy (Prince) hands Mary (Scott Thomas) a napkin with the words “Wrecka Stow” scrawled on it.

Mary: Wrecka Stow … Wrecka Stow … Wrecka Stow … I don’t get it?

Christopher Tracy: If you wanted to buy a Sam Cooke album, where would you go?

Mary: … … … The Wrecka Stow.

Under the Cherry Moon and its accompanying soundtrack album, Parade, hit my prime teen years hard and I’m still affected today. Like Bowie, Prince taught us there was a different way to think about gender and sexuality. Prolific, mysterious and magic, always flanked by a crew of incredible female musicians, he showed us all a new way of doing things. He also gave Sheena Easton a platform to transcend her small-town Scottish roots. He showed us we could be anything we dreamt of.

If you are in any doubt of Prince’s talent you just have to watch any one of the clips that are circulating on social media right now. Pick any of them, they’re all brilliant.

One of my favorites is from the performance of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Jeff Lynne from ELO, Tom Petty, Dhani Harrison, Steve Winwood and Prince all play on the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame tribute to the late Beatle from 2004. It all starts pretty predictably, with the accomplished super-group jamming together. Then at the 3:20 mark, Prince starts up and within a few seconds his fluid guitar solo transcends the group. Petty is relegated to a backing musician and Dhani Harrison looks like he’s going to explode with excitement at his proximity to such talent. When the song finishes, Prince just throws his guitar vertically in the air. His work here is done.

When I first heard the news on Thursday of a possible death at Paisley Park, I couldn’t believe it might be true. I saw Prince perform live less than a year ago in Leeds and he seemed utterly unstoppable, bemused by his own brilliance and talent – exclaiming, “Hits, more hits, more hits,” and generously playing for hours. He was going nowhere.

As soon as it was apparent the TMZ report of his passing was true, I phoned my best friend from those teenage years. We remembered the design from the sleeve notes of Purple Rain she had painted on her wall, how we could recite the lyrics to “Housequake” in unison, the pilgrimage we made to see him in Manchester in 1990 in hand-painted T-shirts, and we both wept hot tears for the man we didn’t know, but who had changed our lives.

Jeanie Finlay is a British artist and filmmaker who creates intimate, funny and personal documentary films and artworks. Her focus is on creating compelling portraits and is obsessed with telling other people’s stories. Her work is known for its innovative approach to engaging with audiences in meaningful ways. Her documentaries includes Game of Thrones: The Last Watch, Seahorse, Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, The Great Hip Hop Hoax, Sound It Out, Goth Cruise and Teenland. Her latest film, Your Fat Friend, is now playing at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema in New York City. (Photo by Jo Irvine.)