Color It Empty

“I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don’t notice it.” Not as much as the film of THE COLOR PURPLE pissed me off.

Based on Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning epistolary novel, the film stars Whoopi Goldberg as the downtrodden Celie, who endures an abusive marriage to Mr. (Danny Glover) until her eventual physical, mental, and spiritual awakening. On the morning of the 1985 Academy Award nominations, THE COLOR PURPLE tied OUT OF AFRICA with eleven nominations, the most of the year. Scandal erupted when Steven Spielberg’s name was missing from the Best Director list.

Many wondered how the film could rack up eleven nominations, including one for Best Picture, and not get a nod for its director. But the main problem with the film happens to be its famous director. In interviews at the time, Spielberg explained that the audience shouldn’t have to suffer through the film. However, Celie’s story is a harsh one, and by not trusting his material, Spielberg robs the film of its hard-hitting emotional story arc, insulting us as audience members in the process.

For characters that are incredibly poor, everything is much too pretty and clean. Poverty’s dirt and grime is placed “just so,” and even the violence doesn’t ring true. Some of the most horrific scenes in the story are ruined by pure slapstick and totally at odds with the rest of the film. And the final scene is a groaner. (Wouldn’t adults brought up among American missionaries be able to speak better English than “Ma-ma”?)

The film is excruciating to sit through with performances and scenes that veer between overwrought and comical (especially Oprah Winfrey’s). Academy voters must have also had a problem with the film.  THE COLOR PURPLE joined THE TURNING POINT (1977) and later GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) for the most nominated film not to win a single statue.

The Color Purple CD

Co-producer Quincy Jones faced a formidable task with the film. Not only did he compose the majority of the score, he also supervised a battery of eleven other musicians, all of whom were also nominated for the Original Score award, though it was only Jones’s name on the main title credits.

Featuring blues, gospel, and more traditional orchestral scoring, the music is at times dramatic and poignant, but often sinks to mawkishly sentimental or Mickey-Mousing the out-of-place comic antics onscreen. Composing by “committee” may have been the only way Jones could have handled the score and co-producing duties. But, by doing so, there are too many voices for the film, and Jones’s Hollywood sheen doesn’t help overcome Spielberg’s gloss.

By consulting the CD track listings, it is evident that Jones had a piece of every slice of the musical pie. So how do you justify a nomination for eleven other musicians?

In tandem with Jones, the main thematic duties fell to Rod Temperton and Jeremy Lubbock. Temperton and Jones also composed the patty-cake song, “Makidad,” for Celie and her sister Nettie (Akosua Busia). The two men also brought in Lionel Richie at the eleventh hour to help compose Shug’s (Margaret Avery) juke-joint (and Oscar-nominated) song, “Miss Celie’s Blues (Sister).”

Joel Rosenbaum also handled thematic material and was responsible for orchestrating and conducting cues such as the main title and the hearbreaking letter sequences. Jack Hayes, another orchestrator and conductor, handled the early scenes with Celie and Nettie, Celie’s transition to womanhood, and the reunion finale.

Jorge Calandrelli orchestrated and contributed material to the overripe cue when Mr. throws Nettie off his farm and Celie’s new house, serving as conductor on the latter cue. Fred Steiner contributed music and orchestrated and conducted the ridiculous scene of Celie cooking breakfast for Shug. Chris Boardman unfortunately got saddled with two over-the-top cues: Celie’s “I’m Here” speech and the inexplicable scene aboard the train with Celie dressed to the nines drinking champagne.

Jerry Hey arranged two short cues for the juke-joint band playing “Miss Celie’s Blues” as Shug leaves for Memphis. Randy Kerber, along with Hey, wrote the theme accompanying the headstrong Sophia (Oprah Winfrey) for harmonica and saloon piano.

World-reknowned gospel artist Andrae Crouch provided the rousing numbers, “Heaven Belongs To You” and “Maybe God Is Tryin’ To Tell You Somethin’.” South African musician Caiphus Semenya employed, as Jones put it, a “train of percussion” for Corrine’s (Susan Beaubian) funeral choir and the superbly edited scene contrasting Celie shaving Mr. and the African scarification ceremony.

But it’s the lovely child-like waltz for Celie and Nettie that constitutes the most memorable melody in the score. A harmonica gives the score the flavor of the South in the early 1900’s, but often orchestrations point out the farcical nature of many of the scenes, and the bending of string notes feels more Hollywood than Southern.

The battle in musical styles in the score was made evident in a 1994 interview between jazz pianist Oscar Peterson and author Tony Thomas for Music from the Movies: “Quincy told me that the original fight with THE COLOR PURPLE was that they wanted music like Mozart behind it, and he had a huge fight over it, saying, ‘You’re out of your mind–You can’t have Mozart behind a black history piece like this!” So instead of Mozart, Jones used Georges Delerue instead.

During the filming, Delerue’s score for the 1967 Dirk Bogarde picture, OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE, was used as a temp track. And if you compare the two versions of the main theme, you’ll notice an eerie similarity between the harmonies, chord changes, and the melody. When the similarities came to lights, an article in People magazine dubbed it “Purplegate”–“Could a movie celebrating that most musical of peoples–American blacks–really have ‘borrowed’ music written by a Frenchman for a British Gothic drama?” According to a “close associate,” Delerue was “mostly flattered and bemused as only a Frenchman can be.”

[audio:colorpurple.mp3]
Click Track: THE COLOR PURPLE – Main Title

[audio:ourmothershouse.mp3]
Click Track: OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE – Main Title

Notwithstanding the fun of owning the purple LP’s that the original soundtrack was released on, the main problem with the score is that the music team results in a mish-mash of opposing styles with no common thread. In many places THE COLOR PURPLE has some lovely melodies, and the score is certainly slickly and professionally produced, but at all times the music makes its presence known. As for the Jones-Delerue brouhaha, the controversy faded, especially once John Barry won for OUT OF AFRICA, but the stain ruined what little appreciation I had for the score that the overwrought film hadn’t wiped out already.

7 comments

  1. Even Spielberg has said he GOT IT WRONG with Color Purple. When I read the book, by Alice Walker and saw the film, it was TOO pretty. This was truly a ugly period in America. Spielberg didn’t even want to TOUCH the lesbian relationship.

    And I truly hate the “EASE ON DOWN THE ROAD” Sequence from the Jukejoint to the Church. IT was amazing that it truly got 11 Oscar nomination. AND i was completely dumbfounded!!! THEN when it didn’t win anything. BUT looking back now. OUT OF AFRICA was the better film. John Barry deserved his Oscar.

    This all would of been a MUTE point i believe if John Williams had scored The Color Purple, but Quincy Jones was already attached to the project.

    1. I was dumbfounded when it got 11 nominations as well. But usually by the time the votes are counted, the voters can separate the wheat from the chaff, especially once the hype dies down. I’m hoping that happens with AVATAR this year. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and a stunning technical achievement, but empty. If I’m remembering the visuals and nothing else, well, that’s not a Best Picture, if you ask me. Sorry…got sidetracked. And by no means would I ever equate AVATAR on the same lowly level that I put THE COLOR PURPLE. LOL

  2. I remember watching the Academy Awards that year and the ghastly reading of names for “The Color Purple”. I couldn’t understand why so many “composers” were attached to the project. Even then it suggested something was lacking in the project’s producer (Quincy Jones).

    Personally, I liked the score album. It was a potpourri of blues, classical orchestration and southern harmonica drawl. After hearing Georges Delerue’s Main Title from “Our Mother’s House” I feel like I was had! There are basically eight notes in all of music (not counting the sharps, flats, etc.) At some point somebody’s going to repeat a riff, melody or theme. However, as far as professional credibility goes, it does not help the filmmakers that they consciously used Delerue’s composition as their temp score (assuming what was reported is true).

    Honestly I’m stunned…and not a little disappointed. Integrity matters, even in the rough and tumble world of film scoring.

    1. Even though I wasn’t a fan of the movie, I too enjoyed the score album. That paled as the memory of the movie grew harsher. Once I found out about the Delerue connection years later (that little bit of info never made it down to Texas), I couldn’t listen to it at all. It’s a shame because there’s some real talent in the music. It’s a shame it’s stuck with such a stinker of a film.

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