The Color Purple

The Color Gray: Quincy Jones and George Delerue by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in CinemaScore #15, 1986/1987
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor and publisher Randall D. Larson

the color purple

Steven Spielberg’s movies have been notable for their lavish and ex­hilarating use of music. Although THE COLOR PURPLE is a thematic change of pace for him, it main­tained the strong use of musical scoring that has underlain all of his productions.

Rather than the sweeping John Williams scores of films like JAWS, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS and E.T., the music for THE COLOR PURPLE was provided by one of the film’s co-producers, com­poser and musician Quincy Jones. Jones has worked in films for many years while keeping active as a pro­ducer of recording artists such as Michael Jackson and James Ingram. Before that he worked as a musician, playing with many of the top perform­ers of the last 35 years. The major­ity of his film scores, which have included IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT, MACKENNA’S GOLD and IN COLD BLOOD, are derived from a jazz idiom.

The musical score for THE COLOR PURPLE is especially striking due to the richness of its orchestral tex­ture and the diversity of its style. The film takes place amid the ram­shackle juke joints of the 1920’s American South, and Jones has drawn on actual record­ings of black jazz musicians of the era to lend an ap­propriate sense of period to these sequences. As Quincy Jones said in a promo­tional interview recording re­leased by his company, Qwest Records, “in [THE COLOR PURP­LE], we used three different kinds of music. One was repre­sented as scoring music, the ’emo­tion-lotion,’ which described the emo­tion­al action. It rode the emo­tions. Then we had source music from Sidney Buchet, Louis Arm­strong, Cole­man Hawkins, actual records of the people. Then we had to assimilate some sounds and write new songs like “Miss Celie’s Blues” that were sup­posed to sound like they were written in 1922. It was a very chal­leng­ing kind of road there, musically and dra­mat­ical­ly.”

The new jazz material, such as the theme song, “Miss Celie’s Blues”, though per­formed on screen by Mar­garet Avery as the juke joint singer Shug Avery, was actually sung by a vocalist named Tata Vega. “She’s one of the few young people I know who can really put her heart and soul into feeling like it’s 1922,” Jones said. “I worked with her 18 years before when she first came out here, on a picture called THE HOT ROCK, but they didn’t use the song in the pic­ture be­cause it just didn’t come out, dramat­ical­ly. And I never forgot her energy and her commit­ment, and the way she was able to adjust to a 1922 song. That’s a tall order, to ask some­one to get emo­tion­ally involved in a song that’s supposed to sound like it’s emanating from 1922 or 1923. But she nailed it. What’s inter­esting, when you hear the song come out of ‘The Dirty Dozens,’ which is an au­thentic song of that period, and come into ‘Miss Celie’s Blues,’ I mean it feels like it`s the same fab­ric. I was real happy about that, because that was real difficult.”

Other elements of the score in­cluded raucous Southern Gospel, homey Americana mingled with the omni­present jazz refer­ences, and music derived from West African musical traditions. “There was one scene which was the equivalent to our chase, and every pic­ture has a chase,” said Jones.   “It was a cere­mony in Africa, with some dramatic action going on in Georgia between Celie and Mister. We had three ele­ments: we had Caiphus Semenya with an African Choir; we also had a big or­chestra playing the dramatic portions of that scene; and underneath there was like a train of African per­cus­sion which was put together by Harvey Mason and Bill Summers. Bill and Harvey really know their stuff, and it was very important that we didn’t get into African music and have any Tarzan music going on. They came up with a combination of sev­eral differ­ent African styled and we ended up with a hybrid, but it’s really the real stuff that comes from almost the secret cere­monial drum patterns from Western Africa.”

While the score, in all its di­verse elements, remains highly effec­tive in this striking and remarkable film, there was a peculiar drawback, noted on the turntables of sound­track collectors and, of all places, in the pages of People magazine (May 31, 1986, p. 38,41). Although the compo­sition of the score for THE COLOR PURPLE was credited to Jones and some 11 collaborators, parts of it, in­cluding the primary or­chestral theme, sound quite a bit similar to portions of the score for OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE, Jack Clayton’s 1967 macabre thriller scored by Georges Delerue.

None of the principals involved, Jones, Delerue, the Spielberg organi­zation, the Motion Picture Academy nor their attorneys would speak with People magazine about the matter, nor would Jones or Delerue comment on the record to CinemaScore. People maga­zine did report the following in their coverage of the mini-scandal, what they publicized as a “Purple-gate” during Oscarweek:

“During the production of PUR­PLE, accord­ing to sources close to the film­makers, one of the recordings used on the ‘temp-track’ was Georges Delerue’s sound track for OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE. From that founda­tion, Jones crafted some of the music for PURPLE. ‘Spielberg has a very musical mind and he really laid it down,’ Jones told [an inter­viewer for] Jazziz [magazine]. ‘Many times we had to do revisions, change this or that a little bit, move it over a little to the right or left. Some­times there were five or six rewrites of a certain section.’

“Parts of the resulting PURPLE score are sus­piciously close to the original OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE music, according to those who have compared them. ‘I find a very strong resem­blance between the two,’ said a music expert who has reviewed both sound­tracks. (People sources for this story, fearing that their Holly­wood careers might be jeopard­ized, de­clined to be quoted by name.) ‘Quincy uses more up-to-date chords than Delerue, who uses clas­sical-type harmoni­za­tion, but they are following the Delerue theme by substi­tuting the chords…I think most people would see a strong simi­larity.”

Delerue reportedly remained ami­able about the whole matter and, al­though lawyers have inevitably become involved, there has been no word of an official lawsuit as far as Cine­maScore has been able to determine. “Georges was not mad,” a close asso­ciate told People magazine. “He was mostly flattered and bemused as only a Frenchman can be.”

In the final analysis, the whole matter may simply be no more exciting or important than any number of “I recognize that tune!” criticisms that have plagued film composers from Erich Wolfgang Korngold to James Horner, especially with the ubiqui­tous and often reverential use and treat­ment of the temp-track in cur­rent cine­matic post­pro­duction; and perhaps this time around it was only the magnitude of the production, its Oscar potential and Spielberg’s at­tachment to it (and how the press loves to alter­nately heap acco­lades or gar­bage­bags upon this particular film­maker) that made People magazine blow whole situation into national prominence.

The fact may indeed remain, de­spite all this, that the score works marvelously on film and the sound­track album is highly listenable and enjoyable and why not leave the com­parisons to the critics and bar­ris­ters. But if you are curious or per­turbed, well, just listen to the soundtracks of both films and make up your own mind. Try side 1, band 1 of OUR MOTHER’S HOUSE, and side 1, band 2 of THE COLOR PURPLE for starters. Then put on some James Horner and forget about it.

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