Saturday, January 21, 2012

Sparkle (1976)

          A routine showbiz melodrama enlivened by great music, Sparkle leaves virtually no cliché untouched. Written by future director Joel Schumacher, from a story by Howard Rosenman, the movie follows the exploits of three young women who try to escape life in the New York ghetto by singing soul music in nightclubs circa the 1950s and ’60s. Inspired by the real-life adventures of vocal groups like the Supremes, Sparkle in turn inspired the creation of the 1981 Broadway musical Dreamgirls, which was of course adapted for the screen in 2006. Continuing the pop-culture recycling, a remake of Sparkle was released in 2012, featuring the late Whitney Houstons final acting performance.
          Given how enduring this movie and its imitators have proven to be, one might expect Sparkle to shine, but it’s merely an energetic trifle.
          That said, it’s not difficult to see what fans like about the picture, because the combination of a rags-to-riches showbiz saga and overheated domestic melodrama gives Sparkle campy zing as it hoots and hollers through 98 music-filled minutes. The figure at the center of the story is Stix, played by Philip Michael Thomas of Miami Vice fame in an amateurish but endearing performance. He’s a would-be music mogul who recruits several friends (both male and female) to form a singing group. Almost immediately, Sister (Lonette McKee) becomes the breakout member of the group, ostensibly because of her showboating vocals but really because she’s a sexy knockout.
          Stix shrinks the group into a vocal trio called Sister and the Sisters, in the process marginalizing his sweet girlfriend, Sister’s younger sibling Sparkle (Irene Cara). As Sister’s fame grows, she falls in with an abusive, drug-addicted manager named Satin (Tony King), which starts Sister down the path of self-destruction. Eventually, Stix persuades Sparkle it’s her turn to shine. As in Fame (1980), Cara makes an impression with her unique combination of an unassuming screen presence and a powerhouse voice.
           McKee is just as potent a singer, so the musical sequences of Sparkle are wonderful; in fact, the real star of the movie is soul-music legend Curtis Mayfield, who wrote and produced the movie’s songs. (One tune, “Something He Can Feel,” became a breakout hit from the film’s companion album, on which Aretha Franklin sang the lead vocals.) Furthermore, McKee is quite beautiful in the film, and she gives the picture’s best dramatic performance as her character suffers a precipitous decline. (Mary Alice offers a rock-solid counterpoint as the mother of the singing sisters.)
          Sparkle has many virtues in terms of music and performance, so it’s ironic that the film’s least interesting element—its story—has enjoyed the longest life. Yet there’s a reason why people play sad songs over and over again; like a favorite tune, Sparkle presses so many familiar buttons that it’s the equivalent of comfort food.

Sparkle: FUNKY

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