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The Color Purple is the best movie musical since Chicago

It's all about embracing what makes musicals special

Fantasia as Celie in The Color Purple
Image credit: Warner Bros

Movie musicals used to be good. Sure, you'd get duds here and there, but they weren't all duds. And yet it's been a hot minute since fans of movie musicals got a real shining success.

With the exception of what I'd consider more minor successes of the Mamma Mia movies and maybe Tick, Tick... Boom! (and a bigger success with Spielberg's West Side Story remake), we've mostly had to deal with the the sad slop of Dear Evan Hansen, Les Miserables, Into the Woods - and yes, Cats. It's been so bad that the marketing of movie musicals has begun to forgo the fact that they're musicals at all!

... The Color Purple wants to sing, and it refuses to stay grounded, even as it depicts the very real-life struggles of Celie.

But Blitz Bazawule's The Color Purple is the big win we've been waiting for, and it doesn't surprise me at all that the director to pull this off is a multi-hyphenate (Bazawule is a director, singer-songwriter, visual artist, and more). Bazawule clearly came to the project with a vision, and that vision was rooted in a love for the source material. Where other movie musicals seem to try to get past the singing bits as quickly as possible (or downplay them with framing so grounded that it makes the singing seem silly), The Color Purple wants to sing, and it refuses to stay grounded, even as it depicts the very real-life struggles of Celie.

With gorgeously highlighted choreography, dream sequences, and brilliantly thought-through sets, The Color Purple allows itself to take advantage of what musicals can do - offer us a glimpse into the interior lives of live action characters.

This is never more clear than when Celie first catches feelings for Shug Avery, who demands help in her bath. While Celie and Shug are silent in the bathroom, Celie is transported (by movie magic) to dancing across a giant record playing on an enormous phonograph. In this sequence she sings, "Got about a million tingles snaking on up my spine. I wash her body and it feel like I'm prayin', try not to look, but my eyes ain't obeyin'. Guess I found out What all of the fuss is about." None of this is something that Celie would say aloud to anyone in her life, yet through the use of song we're able to see, through image, setting, as well as lyric, what is going on in Celie's mind. Moments like these are what makes The Color Purple such a magical movie musical experience.

It isn't just this number either, this sort of storytelling is present throughout the film. More than any movie musical since 2002's inspired Chicago, The Color Purple doesn't try to ignore the fact that it's a musical, it takes advantage of it - weaving dance and music into the structure of the storytelling, and moving away from the hypergrounded numbers that have plagued the genre in recent years. We can only hope that The Color Purple will serve as an example for future filmmakers of what movie musicals can accomplish, when the material is understood and executed well.

The Color Purple is currently in movie theaters. Buy tickets on Fandango or Atom Tickets.

Speaking of movie musicals, check out this Cinnabon tie-in to the movie adaptation of Mean Girls the Musical.

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