Music

How the New ‘Color Purple’ Soundtrack Healed Old Wounds & Breathed New Life Into Alice Walker’s Classic

From Barbie: The Album to Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, soundtracks tied to blockbuster films have dominated much of the year. As 2023 draws to a close, Quincy Jones, Scott Sanders and Larry Jackson hope their new expanded soundtrack, released last Friday (Dec. 15) for the forthcoming Color Purple movie musical (which hits theaters Dec. 25), marks a new era for R&B soundtracks and continues the healing Alice Walker sparked with her paramount novel 41 years ago.

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Walker’s story has undergone countless iterations over the past four decades: an Oscar-nominated Steven Spielberg-helmed film in 1985, a Tony-winning Broadway musical in 2005, a Grammy-winning Broadway revival in 2015, and now a new movie musical directed by Grammy nominee Blitz Bazawule. Led by Fantasia, Danielle Brooks, Taraji P. Henson, Colman Domingo and Halle Bailey, the new film offers a fresh perspective on the timeless narrative, as evidenced by its accompanying star-studded, globe-traversing Inspired By soundtrack. The new set is comprised of 21 new songs inspired by the film, in addition to 16 tracks taken from the Broadway musical. The genre-spanning set is heavily rooted in R&B — a conscious decision given the way R&B has been counted out by major labels over the past decade.

According to Sanders, who produced the 2005 Broadway musical and serves as executive producer on both the 2023 film and its soundtrack (released through Warner Bros. Pictures/WaterTower Music/gamma), Warner Bros. was always planning to do a soundtrack. “We knew it would be an opportune moment for them to add another dimension to The Color Purple brand extension,” he remarks.

And that’s precisely what the new soundtrack is. As cinematic universes continue to dominate mainstream media, The Color Purple has been crafting its own interconnected web of stories for 40 years — and the new soundtrack became a holy site for reunions and healing among the producers, artists, and cast.  

The idea of a proper Inspired By soundtrack started to take form during an April lunch between Sanders and Jackson after the gamma. CEO had seen the film and felt its impact on early audiences. “Whatever veneer of impenetrable stoicism I had at that time, [the film] pierced it,” Jackson reflects. “To me, the great Black films are the ones [where] people are talking back to the screen, they’re applauding, there’s conversations going on, and whooping and hollering. It’s an interactive spirit, and this film has that.” 

For Jackson, it was Fantasia’s performance that most moved him. The Billboard Hot 100-topping R&B star leads the film as Celie Harris-Johnson, a role for which she has already earned a Golden Globe nomination. Almost 20 years ago, Fantasia captivated America’s hearts and won the fourth season of American Idol. Shortly after her victory, she headed to the studio to record her debut LP, a Grammy-nominated effort on which Jackson would serve as A&R. That album featured singles such as “Truth Is” and the Missy Elliott-assisted “Free Yourself,” a collaboration that now has a three-way connection to The Color Purple universe. 

“That was a lot for me at that time of my life — [Fantasia and I] were basically the same age and really related to what needed to be achieved,” Jackson reflects. “I was saying to Missy Elliott last night, she really helped me craft the sound for Fantasia’s first album.” 

On the soundtrack, Elliott appears on two remixes: the Shenseea-featuring “Hell No,” a song from the original musical, and “Keep It Movin’,” a new addition to the musical co-written by Bailey. Like most of the artists involved in the soundtrack, Jackson says that the “Work It” rapper decided to join the project after a private screening of the film. It’s the same way he landed Alicia Keys, who co-wrote and co-produced the soundtrack’s lead single (“Lifeline”), Johntá Austin, whose “When I Can’t Do Better” marks his first collaboration with Mary J. Blige since their iconic “Be Without You,” and The-Dream. Fresh off a Grammy win for his work on Beyoncé’s Renaissance, The-Dream could be headed down to the Oscars thanks to “Superpower,” a new song he penned for the Color Purple end credits. 

Often, end-credit songs are performed by artists who don’t appear in the film — but in the case of The Color Purple, everyone was in early agreement that Fantasia was the only correct choice to belt the closing ballad. For one, both the song and the movie are Fantasia’s formal re-entry into the public eye as a performer, but her specific voice and story were the best vehicle for The-Dream’s lyrics. “This is older Celie singing to her younger self — it is a quintessential ‘it gets better’ song,” Sanders gushes. “It’s so f—king moving. I can’t stop listening to it. I cry when I listen to Fantasia’s rendition.” For “Superpower,” Jackson told The-Dream, “I just want a spiritual, a song that will move on far past our time. Something that will be sung in high school graduations.” 

Although the SAG-AFTRA strike almost prevented Fantasia from recording the song, the timing worked out and she was able to cut her vocal in time. Given that Fantasia played Celie on Broadway for eight months during the Broadway show’s original run, her rendition of the end-credits song is the kind of full-circle moment that most artists dream of. “Superpower” is a rousing song – one in which she deftly displays the expanse of vocal range and control – and a potential comeback vehicle for not just Fantasia, but the R&B soundtrack in general. In crafting The Color Purple (Music From and Inspired By), Sanders, Jackson and film director Blitz Bazawule drew inspiration from iconic R&B film soundtracks of decades past, including Sparkle, The Bodyguard, Boomerang and Waiting to Exhale

“It had always been on my bucket list to do a soundtrack that felt like the great soundtracks of the 1970s, or the ones in the ‘90s,” Jackson says. “I’ve been involved in a few of them, but Clive [Davis] was always the one who was leading it. It never was something that I was driving with my own personal taste and sensibility, and this was an opportunity for that.” 

The Color Purple soundtrack bookmarks a year that began with troubling layoffs for one of the most storied labels in Black music history. In the middle of Black History Month (Feb. 16), Billboard reported that Motown was set to be reintegrated under Capitol Music Group – hence the layoffs – making for a less-than-preferable outcome after the company attempted a run as a standalone label back in 2021. Despite a precarious start to the year, R&B artists have once again forged a spot at the forefront of the mainstream, thanks to acts such as SZA, Victoria Monét, Usher, Coco Jones and more. It’s a level of momentum, Sanders and Jackson hope to continue with their generation-bridging Color Purple tracklist. 

In addition to the cast, The Color Purple soundtrack features contributions from Jennifer Hudson, Keyshia Cole, Mary J. Blige, Mary Mary, H.E.R., Ludmilla, Megan Thee Stallion and more. Like Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson’s track marks another full-circle moment for The Color Purple universe. Hudson took home the 2017 Grammy Award for best musical theater album thanks to the Broadway revival, and, of course, she was a contestant on the same season of American Idol as Fantasia. In another connection, Hudson herself also starred in a blockbuster Black movie musical that hit theaters on Christmas Day: 2006’s Dreamgirls, for which she won the Academy Award for best supporting actress.

Although Walker’s novel specifically highlights the stories of Black American women in the American South during the early 20th century, the new Color Purple soundtrack both globalizes those narratives and translates them to contemporary times. Megan Thee Stallion’s remix of “Hell No” — a selection from the original musical – carries a special weight given the way she has refused to let misogynoir drown out her voice over the past few years. Jamaican cross-genre star Shenseea appears on a different “Hell No” remix, and her inclusion on the tracklist – alongside Brazilian singer-songwriter Ludmilla – highlights how The Color Purple’s narrative resonates with Black women around the world. 

“Every day was meeting to reaffirm why I’m doing this, to remind myself the importance of this work,” explains director Blitz Bazawule. “It’s daunting. You’re talking about a legacy that you don’t approach if you don’t have anything real to contribute.” Bazawule aimed to contribute new perspectives of childhood and Celie’s inner dialogue in his version of The Color Purple. In translating a Broadway play to the silver screen, Bazawule was pushed to think about which characters and moments in the plot needed songs. “Keep It Movin’,” co-written by Bailey and Grammy-winning songwriting duo Nova Wav, was one of those songs. “Nettie’s character, as I saw it, needed to impart to Celie some level of confidence that will stay with her sister before they reconnect at the very end,” Bazawule says. “[The song] shows a young girl’s innocence which will very soon be snatched away quite violently. I need that moment to be memorable and really reflect the love the sisters have for each other.” 

Bailey, who starred as the titular Little Mermaid earlier this year, is, of course, one-half of the Grammy-nominated sister duo Chloe x Halle. The “Angel” singer drew from her relationship with her sister for “Keep It Movin’,” a dynamic that exemplifies the symbiotic healing nature of The Color Purple soundtrack. As artists completed their contributions to the project, they experienced moments of healing themselves. According to Bazawule, those moments occurred throughout filming, spurred by the omnipresence of faith and gospel music on set. Gospel music is a clear throughline between the original music, the Inspired By soundtrack, and the way the musical’s songs were reworked for the film.  

“Gospel is the foundation. When you think about how our version of The Color Purple functions, which is the oscillation between joy and pain and turning our pain into power, it’s the definition of gospel,” remarks Bazawule. “You don’t have anything without gospel, so, for us, it was central to how we advanced everything. I also was very clear that I’d have to split my musical journey into 3 three parts: gospel, blues and jazz.” To bring a more cinematic, gospel-infused feel to the original Broadway music, Bazawule tagged in Billboard chart-topping gospel star Ricky Dillard; He also recruited Keb’ Mo’ to bring in the blues, and Christian McBride for jazz. He even made sure his DP (Dan Lausten) and production designer (Paul D. Austerberry) got an authentic Black church experience. With both Fantasia and Domingo regularly leading the cast and crew in prayer, The Color Purple transformed into “spiritual work that shows up in the amount of healing that a lot of us went through making this film,” says Bazawule. 

“You cannot work on The Color Purple without understanding what anointing looks like,” Bazawule asserts. “When those singers open their mouths, that’s church talking. That was very clear and it stayed critical up until the end.” 

Just days before The Color Purple is set to open in theatres, a Hollywood Reporter piece exploring the hesitancy of studios to promote movie musicals as musicals started to make the rounds online. Black movie musicals are few and far between, especially when holiday films and biopics are removed, and The Color Purple is hoping to dispel the notion that audiences aren’t interested in seeing musicals on the big screen. 

“I hope [The Color Purple] opens the door to many more and I hope directors and studios take more chances with Black movie musicals,” muses Bazawule. “Again, when it comes to music, we are unmatched, so you just have to find the narratives. I hope and pray our movie will move the needle.” 

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