'The Color Purple' review: Strong performances rescue tedious musical
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Finding inventive ways of translating stage musicals to the silver screen isn’t a new trend, but it’s far from an easy task. You can’t just take the same narrative beats, dialogue, songs, and throw them into a blender and hope they find some cinematic rhythm. You need heart, urgency, and a sense of place and direction or risk losing the soul of what the source material stood for. In a sense, “The Color Purple,” a new musical update of the beloved 1985 movie, certainly knows its place within history, but it lacks the emotional punch necessary to elevate it beyond the pipeline of conventional Broadway-to-movie adaptations we see on a regular basis.
Not for a lack of trying, director Blitz Bazawule, best known for helming Beyonce’s visual concert film “Black is King,” attempts to spruce up the songs and give those who saw the Tony nominated sensation a different experience. Some of the tunes work their magic, including a dream sequence involving a gramophone, but others can seem entirely misplaced, or worse, serve minimal purpose to the driving force behind the characters motives. As the story revolves around Celie’s journey of self-discovery and her internal monologues, it’s hard to ascertain what, for her, is real and what isn’t. Some of the visual mediums and how they are projected might look cool, but this cluttered perspective only invites more questions than answers. Still, if there’s any reason one should see “The Color Purple,” it would be for Fantasia Barrino’s sensational lead performance.
Barrino, who played the role on Broadway and who most will remember as the season three winner of “American Idol,” really showcases those powerful vocals and sturdy screen presence. I wouldn’t call it a comeback considering she hasn’t gone anywhere, but there’s a thrill in the fact audiences will get to rediscover her tremendous talent (If only the movie had lived up to her strengths). She plays the film’s center, Celie, a woman who has endured years of abuse and longs for the day of being reunited with her sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey/Ciara) after they were separated at a young age.
She lives under the tyrannical rule of her husband Mister (Colman Domingo - continuing to solidify he’s one of the greatest living actors of a generation) until jazz singer Shug Avery (Taraji P. Henson – wonderful) rolls into town and shows her kindness and a reason for optimism she hasn’t felt in decades. Celie doesn’t have much to say in these early scenes, but the way her facial expressions adjust with the arrival of this new friend speaks louder than words ever could.
It is the performances, not the songs, that ironically help ground “The Color Purple” in some form of reality. Despite a few uplifting and well-choreographed numbers (Corey Hawkins busting a movie during the energized “Brown Betty” certainly tracks), they mostly stall any narrative momentum just as the movie finds a pulse. Regardless, Domingo is diabolical playing the villainous Mister, a menacing, horrid human being who the film tries to redeem near the end of the film.
Though enough can’t be said of Barrino’s grandstanding pipes, of the supporting players, Danielle Brooks’ Sofia deserves high praise. Sofia is a towering, physical, and strong-willed woman who doesn’t answer to anyone except herself and Brooks, playing the role that earned Oprah Winfrey an Oscar nomination, meets the challenge. The journey of this character is quite extraordinary and what she survives, much like Celie, is representative of the struggles countless women of color have faced throughout history. It’s a tough, juicy character that Brooks handles with unwavering tenacity.
Yet, despite all the murderer's row of talent assembled for this production, you can't help but feel there’s something off about the movie. Most of the musical numbers don’t have panache, lack precision, nor justify their existence within the narrative framework. And, quite frankly, the score isn’t that special. It’s these reasons that hold “The Color Purple” in contempt of itself and while the final moments almost get close to reaching some form of emotional release, that’s only because the actresses have to really flex their chops to get it there. It basically confirms what we already knew: “The Color Purple” is a fine movie, but not a very memorable musical.
THE COLOR PURPLE opens in theaters nationwide Christmas day.