The Color Purple review | A crowd-pleasing dose of tonal whiplash

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Miss Celie (Fantasia Barrino) suffers the hardships of 20th century America in Blitz Bazawule’s musical adaptation of a modern classic. Here’s our The Color Purple review.

On the ongoing hunt for beloved films and works of literature to transform into a musical, The Color Purple seemed, at first, like an odd choice.

Alice Walker’s 1982 novel of sisterhood in the American South, and the 1985 epic film adaptation which followed, are both necessarily bleak affairs. Spanning much of the first half of the 20th century, they deal with sexual assault, racism and domestic violence. Celie, the starring role played to BAFTA-nominated success by Fantasia Barrino, has a pretty terrible time for most of the story.

Still, the world of musical theatre is no stranger to anachronistic subject matter. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, for example, is a ridiculous subject for a song and dance number. More recently, Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey’s Next To Normal, a rock musical about the worsening effects of bipolar disorder, is about to make its debut on London’s West End following a stand-out run at the Donmar Warehouse. The story of Dear Evan Hansen, which memorably made it to the big screen in 2021, is (putting it mildly) weird.

Often it’s this challenge to the general public’s perception of a musical as a cheery, populist affair that produces some of the medium’s most interesting stuff. Having a character unexpectedly burst into song is, after all, an excellent way of displaying emotion. Whether that emotion is a cheery one or not is largely irrelevant.

But while the lesser-spotted “sad musical” is able to muscle its way onto big theatre stages every once in a while, on the big screen, such sights are far rarer. Les Misérables being an obvious exception, one only has to look at the other musical movies lighting up cinemas at the moment – Wonka and Mean Girls – to see that a mass audience is far more likely to accept choreographed dance routines from people who are, broadly speaking, feeling pretty pleased with themselves.

All this is to say in a very roundabout way that, while The Color Purple stands in a very small group of superficially depressing musicals to make it into Hollywood, there’s not an iron-cast reason why the adaptation shouldn’t work. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure that it does.

It has a lot to live up to, to be fair. As with any movie-to-musical-and-back-again, Blitz Bazawule’s film has Walker’s novel, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 adaptation and a multi-Tony Award-winning Broadway show inviting comparisons both positive and negative. It also has the potential misfortune of arriving in the UK after a pair of musicals have dominated the top spot of the box office for an astonishing seven consecutive weeks.

We’ll start, though, with the positive. The cast of this “bold new take” are universally excellent, a feat which is especially impressive when compared to the likes of Whoopi Goldberg, Danny Glover and Oprah Winfrey from the original. Danielle Brooks steals every scene she’s in as force of nature Sofia, while Colman Domingo is upsettingly sinister as the borderline satanic ‘Mister’.

In comparison with Hollywood’s more recent musicals, too, they sure can hold a tune. It helps that the songs of The Color Purple are consistently great, but the Broadway standard much of the cast have clearly held themselves to risks, on a purely technical level, completely overshadowing musicals with some bigger Hollywood names attached.

It’s also worth mentioning the sound design, percussive and physical in a way that really brings the choreography of the dance sequences alive. The more blues-y, gospel-inspired reworking of the stage show’s big hits also works brilliantly. Musically, there’s little to fault here.

On a script level, though, the film seems to straddle two horses, neither of which get on very well. In an attempt to avoid a straight adaptation of the stage version, Marcus Gardley reportedly took inspiration from both the 1985 film and the source novel for his story, and it shows – just not always in a good way.

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The realities of adapting a stage musical to the screen being what they are, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the film cuts a brutal 13 songs from the Broadway version (though it does reinstate one cut for the stage, She Be Mine, while also including Miss Celie’s Blues from the original film). At the same time, cramming 18 musical numbers into a tale originally told for the screen in 153 minutes means a lot of story beats end up on the cutting room floor.

the color purple danielle brooks
Credit: Warner Bros.

It’s here that the 1985 comparisons don’t really do this version many favours. Where Spielberg’s film felt more like a genuine epic, a generation-spanning story of a woman’s daily struggle against a brutal reality, this time the cuts mean that the trials Celie and the other women go through are reduced to the broadest (and often most disturbing) cliff notes. That we move from these abuses into upbeat and extravagant musical numbers only makes the tonal whiplash between form and subject matter harder to come to terms with.

Strangely, though, the film’s final act – the light at the end of the tunnel – has remained more or less intact despite missing 12 minutes and a bunch of song breaks from the runtime. It’s an odd weighting, and turns the story from one about hope in the face of unspeakable adversity into a tale of unshakeable optimism and, even more inexplicably, forgiveness.

Now, that’s a fascinating reimagining of the source text, but one that would have worked far better had Bazawule divorced himself entirely from the previous film. Instead, we’re confronted with constant reminders – from lines of dialogue, extended non-musical segments and even the occasional lighting set-up which can’t help but conjure up Janusz Kamiński-era Spielberg – that we’re not watching a film which does a much better job of playing on our emotions with hardly a song in sight.

There’s still much to be said for seeing a bunch of talented performers delivering Broadway tunes to a world-class standard, and the shift in focus certainly makes The Color Purple into a more crowd-pleasing, cheerful retelling of the same story – just one that feels sort of incomplete. Adapting The Color Purple into a movie musical, I don’t think, was ever really as odd an idea as it sounded. The execution, unfortunately, is.

The Color Purple is in UK cinemas 26th January.

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