Given that two of the best and most cinematic musicals deal with topics like gang warfare and Nazis, it follows a pattern to transform a story about longtime spousal abuse into a movie songfest. So no need to blink twice about The Color Purple as musical—it ran for several years on Broadway and its 2015 revival won a Tony. Three talents from the original 1986 film—Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Quincy Jones—put their names on the newest iteration as producers, assuring the highest level of quality control. Once again, The Color Purple looks great, though with a different director and cast. Blitz Bazawule steps in as director, using spiraling camera work that captures outdoor locations for cinematic flair—nothing confined or stagey about this version. Fast cuts and close ups sometimes shortchange the chance to see all the dance moves but keep energy and emotions intense. As for songs, none jump out on first listen but their gospel and blues style suit action for the story’s setting in the rural south from 1910 to 49. Just as in churches, Gospel music provides an uplifting message and sensibility that helps deal with life’s downers. For main character Celie of The Color Purple, those downers get extreme as she loses her children, her sister, and any sense of control in a life ruled by a husband who beats her. The role made Whoopi Goldberg a certified star in the first version; Fantasia Barrino steps in with emotional heft and an American Idol winning voice. Like their non-singing movie predecessors, Taraji P. Henson, Dannielle Brooks, and Coleman Domingo also deliver powerful performances in strong roles. Yet as before, cinematic time restraints drop some intricacies that prevented Alice Walker’s novel from feeling too tidy. In contrast, the movie once again come across like an overwrapped gift, with too many ribbons and bows crammed together for a sense of forced happiness. Don’t get me wrong—I still like The Color Purple and rank it as one of the year’s best…but you may have heard this one before: the book was better.
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