After the codeine-laced hallucination that was Tom Hooper’s Cats terrorized holiday moviegoers at the end of 2src19, the bar for the next major movie musical was practically on the floor. One would think that all it would take to dazzle viewers would be a little technicolor magic, rousing performances, and truly unforgettable songs—preferably without any life-size feline CGI. In a post-Cats, pandemic-era world, aren’t audiences craving a cinematic spectacle that can make the holidays feel as momentous as they used to?
That may be the case. But the response to Cats also indicated that studios should be more deliberate when choosing which stage-to-screen adaptations to pursue, especially since they apparently know most audiences dislike the genre. Not all successful stage productions can translate seamlessly to the silver screen, even if the films have Taylor Swift-sized star power. The Color Purple (in theaters Dec. 25), adapted from the hit Broadway musical based on Alice Walker’s beloved 1982 novel, has flashes of the magic of other holiday releases like West Side Story and Dreamgirls. But the film often finds itself singing on shaky ground.
Directed by Blitz Bazawule (Black Is King), the sprawling production is a marvel to look at, and its story of a woman finding her freedom is as timely as ever, even 38 years after Steven Spielberg’s initial film adaptation blew audiences away. But the songs that weave this triumphant narrative together aren’t nearly as winning. While the all-important musical numbers are staged in grandiose fashion, the songs themselves are conventional, rarely raising to the production’s level. The film relies on its songs to prop up an underwritten screenplay too mawkish for its own good, but a show-stopping trio of performances keep The Color Purple from becoming completely washed out.
The Color Purple is often bogged down by its inability to find enough middle ground between musical and movie. When the film begins with a horse ambling into the frame as if it’s plodding across a Broadway stage just after the house lights dim, these familiar theatrical tropes make themselves all too conspicuous. That nagging feeling lets up momentarily when the camera pans to a large tree, where a young Celie (Phylicia Pearl Mpasi) and her sister, Nettie (Halle Bailey), sit and sing together. Bailey—already a bonafide star after her turn as Ariel in this year’s live-action Little Mermaid—lights up the screen. Her winsome presence is enough to temper the film’s stagy start, and newcomer Mpasi holds her own opposite Bailey in the movie’s first half hour.
Celie and Nettie are an inseparable duo, devoutly protective of each other. After their mother’s death, their father began to beat and rape Celie, resulting in two children that Celie doesn’t know the whereabouts of. This version of the story tones down some of the graphic content, but the trauma that Celie has had to endure is always lingering around every corner. When she loses touch with her sister after Celie’s equally possessive and abusive new husband, Mister (Colman Domingo), bars Nettie from his home, Celie resigns herself to a life of caretaking and violent mistreatment.
Celie’s eventual triumph over adversity should be jubilant, but The Color Purple doesn’t treat her story with enough grace to make that journey as stirring as it should. After the first of several flash-forwards, we meet the adult Celie (Fantasia Barrino), who has managed to find slivers of kinship in a life otherwise unlivable. She gets occasional reprieve with the help of the bold and outspoken Sofia (Danielle Brooks), the wife of Mister’s son Harpo (Corey Hawkins), who says all of the things that Celie can’t. She also finds camaraderie and learns about romantic love from Shug (Taraji P. Henson), Mister’s mistress. Shug has a penchant for stopping by their home on the Georgia coast to stir up trouble and send the town into a tizzy with the show of an ankle and the pucker of her cherry-red lips.
These are important figures in Celie’s life, who come bearing their wealth of worldly knowledge that Celie was never able to acquire herself. Their presence is supposed to invigorate her, to suggest that there is an enormous life outside of Mister’s ramshackle farmhouse for Celie to explore, if she can work up the courage to say, “Show me.” But for such significant characters, their songs range from great to completely forgettable—a massive problem that obviously weighs down the musical’s book.
Sofia’s “Hell No” and Shug’s “Push Da Button” are two of the film’s standouts, with the thrilling stomp-and-holler melodies of the former nicely complementing the latter’s alluring sensuality. But their other numbers get lost in the fold among plodding songs that aim more to dazzle the audience than enhance The Color Purple’s actual plot. Even then, when you’ve seen one number’s conventional choreography, you can guess what the rest might look like. The unimaginative dancing and humdrum music lack the proper punch that would make a theatrical audience want to stand up from their seats and applaud.
That’s no fault of Brooks, Barrino, or Henson, the movie’s luminous triad of stars. Their performances are utterly beguiling, even in a movie that could easily fail their confident work. It’s fascinating to see the ways that Henson has grown from Hustle and Flow and Empire; she knows how to command the camera and sell the music like a Broadway vet. Brooks and Barrino, who both had stints in the musical’s various runs—Barrino in the original iteration and Brooks in the revival—bring their characters to life once more with almost effortless aplomb. One only wishes that the script constructed around the music did them as many favors as these actors do for the film.
Marcus Gardley’s screenplay is perfectly competent, but competence isn’t enough for a tale this precious. Gardley’s dialogue lacks the fluidity of real human interaction; each conversation feels like a stilted play to the cheap seats. The wooden script makes the film’s most incomprehensible moments all the more apparent; the final third is so disjointed that, when The Color Purple’s big finish arrives, it’s clear the film has been running on fumes.
When that point arrives, it brings with it an infuriating plot element that strips Celie of the agency and tenacity that Barrino has worked so hard to bring to the character. It’s a wholly confounding turn in a movie that was otherwise leading to an inspiring ending, and one that suggests a questionable relationship to abuse and survival. Barrino manages to soften the sharp turn of this conclusion with her powerhouse performance of Celie’s big number, “I’m Here.” But without her wonderful presence, The Color Purple would easily have audiences in a lather at this point, distressed by how the movie progresses Celie’s story.
The film oversimplifies the relationship between forgiveness and atonement, wrapping things up on a sour note that could have been ameliorated by a tighter focus on its main character. If Barrino’s Celie were given more time to explore her freedom and autonomy onscreen, the film’s ending might not be so jarring. But even the star of the film feels like an afterthought here, pushed aside for more bland song-and-dance pieces, dressed up to glamor the audience with their fading sparkle.
Unlike any good musical movie, The Color Purple will leave you neither singing nor dancing your way out of the theater. I struggled to recall the melodies of any more than two of the film’s 3src songs (to be fair, that number includes reprises), finding myself more inclined to break down the anger that the film’s ending instilled in my spirit than any of the pockets of joy I experienced. Though Barrino, Henson, and Brooks deepen the film’s screenplay, The Color Purple only skims the surface of what a modern revival of this story should feel like. This isn’t so much a new take on the beloved classic as it is a worse one, stripped of the appeal of the movie’s namesake hue to be utterly forgettable.