Starring: Lonette McKee, Irene Cara, Philip Michael Thomas, Dwan Smith and Dorian Harewood
Rated: PG Drama/Music
In this typical success story that illustrates the hard struggle to transcend from nothing to something, Sparkle is the fictional account of the Williams sisters’ attempts to gain stardom and wealth. Loosely inspired by the ascension of Motown musical group, The Supremes, this film presents the challenges and triumphs of the young ladies, as a singing trio, to succeed in the music industry. Unlike Motown, which is in Detroit, Sparkle is set in the Harlem community in 1958 and centers around the relationship between three sisters: Sister (Lonette McKee), Deloris (Dwan Smith) and Sparkle (Irene Cara).
Living in poverty, the sisters ultimately come to believe that becoming a musical act, complete with Stix (Philip Michael Thomas) and his cousin, Levi (Dorian Harewood), is the ticket out the ghetto and to a better life. However, after several performances, it is clear that audiences really only want to see the sisters. Stix, who is Sparkle’s boyfriend, realizes this and decides he and his cousin can instead just manage the group. The girls would be known as “Sister and the Sisters” and they enjoy wins on the local nightclub scene.
However, there are serious obstacles, including drug abuse, abandonment, violence, crime and racial discrimination, facing the sisters. Adding to the tension are Harlem gangster, Satin Struthers (Tony King), the boyfriend of Sister; the young ladies’ pious mother, Effie, (Mary Alice) and the possibility of the group becoming involved with the illegal practice of “payola”. Effie works as a maid for Max Gerber (Paul Lambert), who has ties with a Mafia family. She treats her daughters differently and disdainfully commands that they seek more stable employment. Will Sister and the Sisters attain success or are they just chasing the fantasy of musical stardom? You will have to see!
When this movie was released, Blaxploitation films and their accompanying music still garnered large audiences and were highly successful. Sparkle, which had not been considered to be a Blaxploitation film, was a box office failure. However, it was well received by many moviegoers, especially as it portrayed the hope that everyday Black people, significantly those in need, clung to in order to survive and thrive.
Sparkle gained a cult following, especially by the early ‘90s, when R & B group, En Vogue, covered the film’s greatest hit, “Something He Can Feel”. This contemporary group made a video of their cover and in it, recreated the famous scene of Sister and the Sisters, sensuously dancing in red evening gowns and matching gloves. En Vogue also covered “Hooked on Your Love” from the film’s soundtrack.
In 2012, the film was remade, casting Carmen Ejogo as Sister, Tika Sumpter as Deloris, Jordin Sparks as Sparkle, Derek Luke as Stix, Omari Hardwick as Levi and Mike Epps as Satin. Whitney Houston, who played the girls’ mother, Emma, would appear in her final role. The film is dedicated to Houston, who also was a producer. There are differences between the original film and the remake, including the last name was changed from Williams to Anderson, the recent film is set in 1968 and it takes place primarily in Detroit.
As with many Black films created during this time, the soundtrack was highly important. Curtis Mayfield, who had incredible success in scoring music for Superfly, wrote and produced songs on the 1976 Sparkle soundtrack. It featured the instrumental tracks and backing vocals from the film versions but with Aretha Franklin’s voice replacing the vocals of the original lead singers. Aretha Franklin, who had two previous albums that were commercial failures, conspired against her sister, Carolyn, to record the soundtrack. Although Carolyn and Mayfield had been in discussion for Carolyn to sing the tracks; however, Carolyn was under the command of her sister’s management. Aretha undermined and took away the opportunity that could have been the premiere of Carolyn. Aretha recorded the entire soundtrack and scored a number 1 hit with “Something He Can Feel”. If it is any consolation for her sister, it would be the only pop hit Aretha had for the remaining part of the decade. On the 2012 remake, R. Kelly wrote several new songs, including “Celebrate”, that accompanied songs Mayfield composed for the original Sparkle. “Celebrate”, a duet featuring Houston and Sparks, was the last song Houston recorded.