I don’t have a big investment in this property. I’ve never read the book and I didn’t see the Spielberg movie until a few years ago as part of my Best Pick project. Sitting down to watch this musicalised version (from the 2004 Broadway play), I realised that much of the previous movie had failed to stay with me. I remembered a couple of isolated scenes, a couple of characters and that was about all. Possibly a blessing as the twists and turns of the plot took me by surprise.

It’s not that I’ve got anything against this story, it’s just that it doesn’t mean much to me, so I’m unlikely to get cross if the creative team has made changes to the source material (or the source material of the source material). I can enjoy it – or not – on its own terms. And there is much to enjoy here. It all looks great, with outstanding production design from Paul D Austerberry, beautifully photographed by Dan Laustsen, and the story is as strong as ever. Does that story of rape, child murder, deprivation, spousal abuse, and general brutality work as a toe-tapping musical? Well, it doesn’t not work, and the best of the songs are suitably rousing, many of them gospel inflected.

But what’s weird about this is that it doesn’t really work as a musical film. My Fair Lady, for all its many virtues, is a bit of a slog, because it’s basically the entire text of Pygmalion with half of the dialogue reprised in song form, which means it takes far longer than is really necessary. This version of Alice Walker’s story has been carefully streamlined, winnowed to its essentials, so that even with around 16 songs, it actually runs slightly shorter than the 1985 version. (About a dozen more from the stage version were not ported over, which makes me think that the stage version might have been a bit of a slog too.)

But there’s no attempt to integrate the songs into the rest of the production. They’re almost all cut brutally short – less than two minutes. Once they’re over, they’re over – they never spill over into the next bit of dialogue, let alone the next scene. And there’s no hint in the rest of the action that this is a world in which people might start spontaneously singing and dancing. The songs never cover the moments of realisation, decisions made, corners turned, epiphanies experienced or relationships altering. All of that stuff happens between the musical numbers, meaning that this is a tale interrupted by songs, not a story told through music.

This is not a problem which seemed to affect other recent film musicals – it certainly isn’t an issue in the sublime movie version of Matilda for example, and nor did I notice it in the otherwise badly flawed Wonka. And I’m not saying that either the drama scenes or the musical numbers are bad – the best musical numbers are terrific (Miss Celie’s Pants was probably my favourite). But if you can go through your musical film and cut out all the musical numbers and have everything still work fine – which I reckon you could – then it does suggest that not all has gone according to plan.

The real pleasures here are in the performances. Top-billed Taraji P Henson is luminous as Shug, Colman Domingo (whose wry charisma enlivened many otherwise dull episodes of Fear the Walking Dead) is amazing as Mister – the character who arguably goes on the biggest journey. Danielle Brooks is a blazing, radiant presence, and when she’s crushed by incarceration, it almost feels like a death, until she finds her voice again (arguably a bit too quickly). But it’s movie debutante Fantasia Barrino as Celie who owns this film. Her wonderfully expressive eyes, her soaring voice, her fierce determination cover any number of structural issues – and she even tap dances at one point.

All Of Us Strangers
Mean Girls