Monday, January 8, 2024

Year-End Movies II: The Color Purple and May December

Taraji P. Henson in one of her spectacularly ugly costumes she wear in The Color Purple.

Why are most of the recent movie musicals so ghastly? Much as I’d loved Paul King’s Paddington movies, I walked out on his Wonka, just as I’d bailed on The Greatest Showman, which looked like it had been made by people who’d never seen a musical, and Matilda, which was so grotesque it was painful to watch, like Cats. In Wonka the overproduction magnifies everything that’s wrong with the numbers – the bland, paltry songs by Neil Hannon and Joby Talbot, the uninspired choreography (by the usually inventive Christopher Gattelli) and hapless Timothée Chalamet in the title role, pretending to be a musical-comedy performer. It’s not just that he isn’t a singer; legends have built up around non-singers who gave indelible renditions of show songs, like Rex Harrison and Richard Burton and the enchanting, recently departed Glynis Johns. It’s that Chalamet has zero showmanship. There were clunky musicals in the early days of the talkies, when the studios were desperate to find ways to show off the new technology; strident musicals from 20th Century-Fox during and after the war years; misconceived musicals during the sixties and early seventies trying to chase down an audience that had been replaced by a younger, hipper one while the studios weren’t paying attention. But these contemporary out-of-sync kitschfests are way worse.

The latest fiasco is The Color Purple, set mostly in Georgia in the first half of the twentieth century and based on the Broadway musical adaptation of the Alice Walker novel that, nearly four decades ago, generated Steven Spielberg’s unfortunate early attempt to break out of the fantasy-adventure niche. I wasn’t so hot on the book, a fruitcake whipped up out of a tawdry race melodrama and a sisterhood-is-powerful fairy tale, but it was better than the Spielberg version. The director was such a wrong match with the material that I assumed that Black audiences and critics would be offended by all the Disney cuteness. Imagine my surprise when I read an interview with Blitz Bazawule, the director of the new Color Purple, in which he proclaimed that watching Spielberg’s picture had changed his life.