The freshly polished 'sparkle'
SEPARATED by 36 years and profound changes in black culture, the two films known as Sparkle open a window into the history of soul music past and present. The original, released in 1976 and the new version, due Friday, both tell the story of a family of female singers in the '60s embroiled in a melodramatic struggle to make it in the legendarily treacherous record business.
In both Sparkle films the title character is a good girl with a fine voice (Irene Cara in the original, American Idol winner Jordin Sparks now) who has to mature as a performer and a woman when her older, wilder sibling, sister (Lonette McKee then, Carmen Ejogo now), falls Billie Holiday-like victim to both abuse by men and drug addiction.
Between them the two films have engaged the talents of some of the most important figures in soul music: Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, R Kelly and Whitney Houston.
The first Sparkle arrived at a particularly fraught time in black American culture. Soul music, a passionate melding of gospel vocal styles and secular subject matter, was ebbing as a force while dance grooves anchored by self-contained bands or disco studio ensembles took over as the hippest sounds on the radio.
The innovations that hip-hop and Prince would introduce to black popular music were still years away. Sparkle represented an early example of nostalgia for the soul era, though the movie was just a scant decade removed from the genre's artistic and commercial peak.
The film predates the much more celebrated Broadway retro-soul musical Dreamgirls by five years. But where Dreamgirls used a painfully weak pseudo-R&B score to tell its tale of a star-crossed female vocal group, Sparkle employed Mr Mayfield, one of soul music's most gifted singer-songwriters, to compose a score that echoed the innocence and desire of the kind of early-'60s hits he'd written for his group, the Impressions, and many others.
Intensifying the nostalgia at the heart of the project was the choice of soundtrack performer: It was Aretha Franklin, with her powerful voice, not the actresses who performed the songs in the film, who was asked to record the album. So you had Mayfield and Franklin, pillars of '60s soul at its height, returning to the kind of stripped-down R&B arrangements they (and almost everyone else in black music) had abandoned by 1972 or so. For Ms Franklin the Mayfield songs provided a potent albeit brief return to form; for the rest of that decade she would flounder creatively and make some of her worst recordings.
That Sparkle existed at all is a testament to a small, underappreciated post-blaxploitation moment in Hollywood when several non-ghetto-centric films made it through the production pipeline. Pimps, players and private eyes may dominate our memories of that controversial period in American film, but several sweet-natured human-interest stories, notably "Cooley High," "Car Wash" and "Sparkle," were released in the mid-'70s.
As well-intentioned as many of these films were, they didn't necessarily mean that Hollywood was opening its doors wide to black filmmakers. Sparkle, for example, was written by a young Joel Schumacher. Though now a long established mainstream Hollywood director, Mr Schumacher first made his mark in movies as a "black" screenwriter, helping create Car Wash, The Wiz and DC Cab before breaking into "white" movies with St Elmo's Fire in 1985.
Despite its relatively mainstream obscurity Sparkle (directed by Sam O'Steen) became a true cult film in black America. Not only was it one of the few films to celebrate a golden era of black music, but it also had a good-looking cast of young actors and actresses, including Ms McKee, who had star status in Harlem if not Hollywood. And the women had lead roles, rare in film even as womanist black literature was generating scores of enduring female heroines. (I owned a VHS copy in the 1980s, and I found that offering a private screening at my place, plus dinner, would get many dates back in the day, a testament to its appeal and to the fact that more people had heard the soundtrack than had seen the movie.)
If the first Sparkle is an artifact of the post-blaxploitation era, then the new incarnation is very much influenced by Tyler Perry's formula for 21st-century black film success. The director, Salim Akil, and his screenwriter (and wife), Mara Brock Akil, have maintained the original's focus on the fortunes and tragedies of the sisters, but now the male characters play a much more subservient role, very much in keeping with the plotting of Mr Perry's work. Instead of Sparkle being simply a singer, she is now an Alicia Keys-style singer-songwriter whose journey to artistic maturity grounds the story.