THE COLOR PURPLE

★★

THE FRUSTRATION OF A FILM MUSICAL THAT DOESN'T WANT TO BE A FILM MUSICAL

THEATRICAL REVIEW
By Daniel Lammin
20th January 2024

Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1982 novel 'The Color Purple' almost immediately became a U.S. classic, one of the great novels on the African American experience in the first half of the 20th century. Countless readers around the world hold the novel dear to their hearts. Only a few years later, in 1985, the novel was adapted into a major film, directed by Steven Spielberg and featuring breakout performances from Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. I've not yet read Walker's novel, but I have potent memories of seeing Spielberg's flawed yet passionate film when I was in my 20s. As much as the story, I remember its striking images and the overwhelming effect of it, of dawning horror in the first act, rising power in the second and overwhelming emotion at its climax. Perhaps surprisingly, the novel was then adapted into a musical in 2005, and over the years it has grown in reputation and stature to, like the novel and the film, be regarded as a classic of its form. This lineage leads to its second film adaptation, this time of the musical, wisely leaving Spielberg's film to the side. Sitting down to watch the film, directed by acclaimed Ghana-born filmmaker Blitz Bazwule, I felt a certain amount of anticipation. I knew the story was great and I had not seen or listened to the musical, making this (I hoped) an excellent entry point into it.

The story of 'The Color Purple' covers many decades in the life of Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi and Fantasia Barrino), a young black woman who, along with her sister Nettie (Halle Bailey, 'The Little Mermaid' and Ciara), grows up in an abusive household in the first years of the last century in Georgia. When Celie is given to the troubled and monstrous Mister (Colman Domingo, 'Rustin') as his wife, she is separated from Nettie permanently and forced to endure Mister's physical and emotional abuse, as well as taking care of his four children. As a grown woman, Celie has retreated into herself and accepted her endless abuse, until she makes two important connections - the rambunctious and strong-headed Sophia (Danielle Brooks, TV's 'Orange is the New Black'), the new wife of Mister's eldest son Harpo (Corey Hawkins, 'Straight Outta Compton'), and Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson, 'Hidden Figures'), Mister's jazz-singing old flame. With their support and love, Celie finds the strength to stand up for herself and carve a life that is all her own, one free of sadness and abuse.

Right off the bat, I want to make one thing really clear about the latest rendition of 'The Color Purple' - the cast here is excellent. In almost every case, there couldn't have been a better choice for these roles. Fantasia Barrino, reprising the role she played on-stage, is luminous, gentle, heartbreaking and unspeakably beautiful. Danielle Brooks is tremendous, stealing every moment she appears. Taraji P. Henson should have been in musicals this whole time, Colton Domingo strikes the perfect uncanny balance between charisma and monstrosity, Corey Hawkins is careful to give Harpo a child-like humanity laced with his father's violence, Halle Bailey is pure electricity... It's just a really great ensemble of actors, with an impressive parade of smaller performances supporting them. As a consequence, it's impossible not to feel the importance of seeing a predominantly black cast in a major studio musical. I want to start with this because both of these things should be and deserve to be celebrated.

SWITCH: 'THE COLOR PURPLE' TRAILER 2

Unfortunately, I also feel the need to say this first off because, overall, this new film of 'The Color Purple' is an overwhelming disappointment, and this is in no way the fault of the cast. It's also not a fault of the material - Walker's narrative is obviously superb, and having gone now and listened to the cast recording of the musical, it deserves the reputation it has as a powerful, inventive piece of work. The problem with this film is entirely in its execution, a litany of missteps that I've spent days mulling over, and while some of them are specific to this film, some are also indicative of a crisis within the film musical form as it currently stands.

It starts with the film failing to establish what its musical/cinematic language actually is. We accept the unreality of the form when we see it on stage, but on film, a musical needs to be grounded in some kind of aesthetic or textural conceit. That can be as simple as fully leaning into the unreality of the form, which has worked in as diverse a range of works as the classic Hollywood musicals of the 50s and 60s to recent films such as 'Hairspray', 'Sweeney Todd', 'tick, tick... BOOM!' and Spielberg's 'West Side Story'. The other approach is to ground the musical sequences in some kind of diegetic or psychological reality, whether that be the songs in 'Cabaret' (1972) almost all happening on the stage in the Kit Kat Club, or the musical sequences in 'Chicago' (2002) being part of Roxie Hart's imagination. Even the recent film adaptation of the musical adaptation of 'Mean Girls', for all its flaws, quickly establishes a musical language or conceit (in its case, a high school musical production aesthetic) and sticks to it, giving the audience a means through which to follow the use of music within the narrative.

'The Color Purple' seems to be following the path of 'Chicago', with the songs at first occupying Celie's imaginative headspace. It's not as sturdy as the nightclub in 'Chicago' (and uses some truly baffling concepts that seem at odds with the songs themselves), but at least you think you know how to read the use of music in the story. Very quickly though, this all falls apart, and song and/or dance begin to occur outside of this psychological space. Some dance numbers are performed in Harpo's juke joint, some are huge choreographed spectacles in the street, some are fancies of Celie's imagination, some are set up like the actors are standing on a stage, with the camera practically static. There's not a lot of logic here, and it's not helped by the fact that the choreography, while sharp as hell and visually impressive, mostly seems emotionally removed from the content of the songs. It's a similar problem to 'In the Heights', but at least that film was relatively inventive in its cinematography. In 'The Color Purple', the camera doesn't seem to know what to do with all this singing and dancing, and resorts to just pointing and shooting. Compared to other recent musicals mentioned earlier, it lacks dynamism, and dynamism that is certainly present in the score and the cast. Film musicals are really hard to pull off, but the most important principle in making it work is to let the music guide the rhythm of the film, particularly the cinematography and the edit. Frustratingly, that is almost never the case with 'The Color Purple'.

The inconsistency of the musical language or the lack of imagination in its execution might have been overcome, if the film didn't make one overall and frankly baffling misstep - despite being based on a musical, 'The Color Purple' doesn't seem to really want to be a musical. There's a shocking lack of music in the actual film, with there being a stretch of nearly half an hour with no songs whatsoever. You even feel the gaps where music should be, and this is coming from someone who didn't know the musical at all before seeing the film - dialogue that clearly builds towards a song ends up leading nowhere; songs that do pop up feel truncated, barely running for a minute; builds within the score suggesting a song is coming end up leading into just another dialogue scene; and big emotional moments that should bring us to a big musical moment... well, don't. The whole idea of a musical is that a character builds to a point where the only way they can express their emotion is through song, and Celie is absolutely a character that justifies the need for a bunch of powerful ballads where her pain and her fury crack like thunder.

Film musicals are really hard to pull off, but the most important principle in making it work is to let the music guide the rhythm of the film, particularly the cinematography and the edit. Frustratingly, that is almost never the case with 'The Color Purple'.

As it stands, 'The Color Purple' feels like half a musical, with most of the screen time devoted to dialogue scenes. The musical numbers, mostly due to length, feel like they're apologising for being there. Even Celie's big number 'I'm Here', the high point of the piece, feels too small - and again, this is not because of Fantasia Barrino. The reticence of the film to just be a musical begs the question of why it wanted to adapt the musical in the first place. We're suffering endlessly through Hollywood refusing to market these films as musicals (apparently "A Bold New Take" has become code for "it's a goddamn musical" now), but once the audience is in their seats, what's the point in playing coy? Having now listened to the cast recording of the stage version, all the material is there to mine. The songs are rich, excellent at covering exposition and have a musical quality that feels distinct to this story, its historical and cultural context and to the characters within it. So little of that translates over to the film, the effect being that one that always feels like it's about to do something and then never actually does.

As a consequence, the core emotional power of Walker's story never finds its feet. The moments of devastation and triumph never hit as hard as they should, never feel earned. It's as if the film has been conserving its energy to really go for it, but by the time it starts to let a bit of that energy out, it's exhausted our ability to engage or be patient with it. Even the ending, one of those endings that usually leaves you a sopping, heaving mess, left me completely cold. And once again, this isn't a fault of the performances. What the film loses by not embracing itself as a full, rich and unapologetic musical is the energy necessary to land those moments. The songs that are there, rather than driving the emotion of the plot forward, end up stalling it. The fact they're always cut short means we can't fall into them, instead sharply pulled away just as we're getting comfortable. My experience of watching 'The Color Purple' was one of deep frustration and punctuated bafflement.

It ultimately leaves you with the question of why they bothered to make it in the first place. Did they cut most of the score to appeal to an audience that doesn't like musicals? What about the audience who does, and the ones who love this musical in particular? Jon M. Chu making 'Wicked' into a two-part film feels preposterous, but if he honours its musical roots, maybe he has a point. Why cast such an incredible cast of singers if we aren't going to get them singing? Why not just do a new adaptation of Walker's novel, especially if it's going to be made by a black filmmaker who can offer a more authentic perspective than Spielberg? What was the reason for adapting this acclaimed and beloved musical if you aren't going to embrace the fact that it's a musical? The film can call itself a "bold new take" all it wants, but throwing in a few songs into a dialogue-driven film isn't a bold take. Making a full-blown musical epic based on a classic American novel, with a cast and crew of exceptional POC artists with a studio budget? That would have been bold. We would be cheering.

With most bad film musicals, you start to forget about them as soon as you leave the cinema. I haven't been able to stop thinking about 'The Color Purple' though, and even though we often say that with great films we love, in this case it's because of the crushing disappointment of what it is. With this cast and this source material, it could have been something really special, and that it falls so short makes it all the more frustrating. That said, there are a number of tremendous POC film critics who have gone out to bat for this film, and I can't ignore the fact that I'm writing this from the position of my Anglo-Saxon cultural background. I would encourage you to seek out their reviews and listen to their perspective, more relevant to a film of this subject and this creative team. Even with my many issues with 'The Color Purple', I want to return to the fact that this is a major Hollywood musical with an almost entirely POC cast, and we need more of those. Maybe in the future, we'll see 'The Color Purple' less as a failure and more as a stepping stone to even greater things.

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