SXSW Review: ‘American Prince’

04.04.09 8 years ago

The Criterion Collection

I remember the first time I saw “American Boy.”  Criterion put out a laserdisc called “Three By Scorsese,” and we got in several copies for sale and one copy for rental at Dave’s, the store where I worked.  Laserdiscs were fairly steep for the most part.  $39.99 and $34.99 were standard price-point, and sometimes things came down lower, but a lot of times, they were $79 or even $99 and $129 for some of the bigger high-end box sets.  I think “Three By Scorsese” was low-end pricey, like most of the Criterion stuff.  Sort of like now on BluRay.  I couldn’t justify buying it, so I rented it, but I had to wait for two weeks since it was a new release.  Finally, the first night I could use my employee rental to take it home, I rented it for a long weekend, along with a few other things, and my roommates at the time watched it with me, part of our typical weekend-long film festival of back to back to back laserdiscs with occasional breaks for “Mystery Science Theater 3000” or “120 Minutes” and “Liquid Television.”

There were, not surprisingly, three films on that Scorsese disc.  One was a bust, a student-film thing called “The Big Shave” that’s more or less just a little tiny haiku of a thuddingly obvious Vietnam metaphor.  But the other two, both mini-documentaries, were both dynamite.  One is “Italian-American,” a piece about Scorsese’s parents, telling stories about their families.  It’s beautiful, and if you don’t immediately fall in love with Scorsese’s parents, there’s something wired wrong in you.  They’re such great, big, sweet personalities.  The other one is the reason that disc is one of the best laserdiscs to still have a copy of.  Otherwise out of print, it’s a minor Scorsese classic, and a big part of his personal history is encapsulated in that fifty-five minutes that make up “American Boy.”

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It’s basically a monologue piece, but with a set-up that’s rowdy and a little out of control and a great glimpse into the carnal sort of party atmosphere that Scorsese and Prince and Robbie Robertson were all living in 24/7.  Once the film settles in to the idea that it’s just Steven Prince, telling stories, it’s captivating.  Amazing.  Scorsese prompts him a few times, but even when you get the feeling he’s leading Prince a bit, it’s because he’s seen Steven tell these stories before.  He’s heard him tell certain parts of the stories repeatedly.  There’s one moment here, when he reaches the apex of a story he tells about working in a gas station on Spring Break, that is such a perfect, genius moment of performance that it explains Scorsese’s deicison to make this film in the first place.  He knew Prince well enough to know that this guy needed to be recorded, that the real gift here was Prince’s ability to spin any story into a theatrical piece.  He has a knack for detail, for voice, for knowing what to emphasize physically.  He’s just a great storyteller.  It’s a very specific gift.  I don’t think Prince is much of an actor.  I love his scene in ‘Taxi Driver,” but it’s sort of just a moment, not what you would call a real role.  This movie, “American Boy,” this is the film that he was destined to make with his friend Marty.  This is why they met and collided in the first place.

I ended up buying a copy of the film a few months later, and I had it for a few years until a whole ton of my laserdiscs (along with the ones my roommates owned) got boosted from our place.  It took the wind out of me as a collector.  And it broke my heart to lose some of those movies.  Especially after “Pulp Fiction” came out, when I really wanted to be able to show the film to people to blow their minds.

If you just asked yourself, “Why would he show someone some ’70s Scorsese documentary about a dude telling stories after ‘Pulp Fiction’?”, then I don’t want to ruin it for you.  I’ll just say that there’s a moment, one of the big famous iconic moments in “Pulp,” that bears a marked resemblance to one of the best stories that Prince tells in “American Boy.”

And I don’t care.  I love it, actually.  And I think it’s a very knowing reference.  QT’s not trying to fool anybody.  What’s the song that Uma Thurman’s listening to?  “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon”?  And who wrote that song?  Neil Diamond?  And who did Prince tour with as a road manager?  Neil Diamond?  I believe in coincidence, but that would be a coincidence on a near-impossible scale.  I’m not buying it.  I think it’s a joke, a nudge hidden in plain sight.  QT’s version of the story, as shot instead of told, is fantastic, all the right details tweaked, all the right moments emphasized.  But I adore the Prince version.  That, the gas station story, him talking about his family, all the Neil Diamond stuff… that’s all gold.  And at just under an hour, the film leaves you wanting more.

At SXSW this year, I finally got my wish.

“American Prince” is a new film by Tommy Pallotta, a fixture on the Austin film scene, producer on “Waking Life” and “A Scanner Darkly,” sometimes, and Richard Linklater actually appears as an on-camera interviewer in this documentary.  Shot to intentionally evoke memories of the way Scorsese staged “American Boy,” this is a new series of monologues, reflections on the original film as well as new stories about life with Scorsese and life without him.  Where’s Prince been?  Who is he now?  Why was the original film made?  He talks about living in the infamous Laurel Canyon house with Scorsese and Robertson, and he talks about some of the epic parties and crazy incidents.  He doesn’t paint anyone badly, which is one of the great things about Prince as a storyteller.  He’s not telling you these things to make himself look good or to make someone else look bad.  He’s telling them because the stories are so good they need to be told.  He’s got an ear for a punchline when he stumbles across one in life, and I get the feeling he’s a jukebox of stories, a guy who digests his life by breaking it into anecdotes.  And who does it well.  There’s stuff here I’ve never heard about “New York, New York,” about “Taxi Driver,” about Hollywood, about Neil Diamond.  I didn’t realize that one of the scenes in “Waking Life” is Prince, or that he was telling a story he told in “American Boy.”  It never clicked for me when I saw it. 

I learned a ton from watching Pallotta’s film.  It’s just effortlessly entertaining.  Prince hasn’t really changed.  He’s older, he’s heavier, but he’s still the same exact storyteller.  I think it’s impossible to review “American Prince” without acknowledging that it couldn’t exist without the earlier film.  But having said that, “American Prince” is a pretty rich and funny film in its own right, always interesting.  And, yeah, the Tarantino thing comes up a bit.  And I think Prince handles it with class and humor.  As well he should.

I’ve heard that Criterion may be bringing “Three By Scorsese” back out on DVD, but I think I’d rather someone issue both Scorsese’s documentary and Pallotta’s on the same disc.  There’s such a passage of time between them that they end up saying a lot about age and survival and the ability to evolve when you take them together as a double feature.

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