Thursday, February 9, 2012

SPARKLE 1976


Perhaps it's because I’m too old to know exactly what a Jordin Sparks is (it’s not, as I'd initially presumed, a small town in Virginia, but a recording artist), but I had no idea there was to be a remake of this cult-worthy 1976 Irene Cara film (to star said Ms. Sparks), until I began to do a little Internet research for this post.

If this is a harbinger of some kind of covert Hollywood covenant to redo the entire Irene Cara oeuvre (we’ve already had a reboot of The Electric Company and a limp remake of Fame), I’m going to seriously lose it if somebody announces a remake of 1985s Certain Fury—itself a kind of a sex-change remake of Sidney Poitier’s The Defiant Ones—which featured Tatum O’Neal and Irene Cara as a pair of mismatched ex-cons handcuffed to one another. (I kid you not.)

So now there’s to be a remake of Sparkle
If Hollywood is so concerned about piracy, you’d think they might first start “in house” and set an example by ceasing this endless plundering of their own past successes and begin to cultivate a little originality. But I digress.

Sparkle. The place and time is Harlem/1958. The girl-group plotline evokes The Supremes and all they represent as conflicting symbols of African-American upward mobility and crossover success. The small-time show-biz milieu of Harlem jazz clubs and the seedy R&B/soul circuit pay homage to the African-American roots of rock & roll. And the songs prefigure the emergent voices of inner-city youths and the beginnings of the Civil-Rights Movement.
Irene Cara as Sparkle Williams
Lonette McKee as Sister Williams 
Dwan Smith as Dolores Williams
Philip Michael Thomas as Stix Warren 
Dorian Harewood as Levi Brown
Sparkle is a 50s girl-group take on the oft-told show-biz saga of gifted performers from humble beginnings who discover, only too late, that the road to fame is paved with heartbreak and tragedy. “I want the big time!” conveniently asserts beautiful, self-assured, and headed-for-certain-trouble, Sister Williams (Lonette McKee), one-third of the gospel-singing Williams sisters, consisting of: no-nonsense, budding Black-Power radical, Delores Williams (Dwan Smith); and sweet-natured, self-effacing Sparkle Williams (Irene Cara)…i.e., the obvious heroine of the film.

With the help of neighborhood pals Stix (Philip Michael Thomas), a dreamer who longs to write songs, and Levi (Dorian Harewood), always on the hustle; this trio of starry-eyed schoolgirls dub themselves “Sister & the Sisters” and become virtual overnight sensations in a neighborhood nightclub.
But of course, Sparkle being a cautionary tale on the price of fame and a morality play on the importance of integrity, things go wrong in a big hurry. Cue in the drug abuse, dashed hopes, heartbreak, death, racketeering, and familial discord. Will Stix ever realize his dreams of becoming a songwriter? Will the tragedies visited upon Sparkle instill a new-found maturity in her singing? If you don’t already know the answers to these questions, it’s likely you’ve never seen a show-biz movie before.
Soul Sisters
Those looking to Sparkle for gritty, 70s-type urban realism will have to look elsewhere. Although released in the same year as Taxi Driver, Sparkle is more of a direct descendant of those old Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show!” musicals, crossed with the inner-city slum dramas Warner Bros. specialized in during the 30s. Like Rocky, another film released in 1976, Sparkle is really just an updated old movie.

In fact, Sparkle’s melodramatic, ultimately uplifting, plotline and virtually all-blast cast recall the heyday of the “Race Film.” (“Race films” being independent motion pictures made between 1915 and 1950 that were created exclusively for, and frequently by, African-Americans. In the days of segregation, these films, popular in African-American neighborhoods across the country, featured all-black casts and were the first movies to portray African-Americans in heroic and lead roles central to the plot.)
Sparkle’s backlot depiction of Harlem, populated with characters going by the names  “Stix”, “Satin”, and “Tune-Ann”, harken back to The Harlem Tuff Kids (black cinema’s answer to The Bowery Boys), a pack of late 1930s comic delinquents with names like “Icky,” “Stinky,” and “Shadow.”
Brownstone Socializing: (l. to r.) Levi, Dolores, Sister, Stix, & Sparkle

I wonder if the online commenters criticizing the so-called silly names of Sparkle's characters have the same problem with Grease's "Putzie", "Doody", & "Frenchy"; or Laverne & Shirley's "Squiggy"?
The 70s were certainly boom years for African-Americans in film, but by 1976 I personally had grown weary of the decade’s pimp & prostitute /Kung Fu-Badass Blaxploitation overkill. The fascination all those sassy black female crime-fighters and morally dubious Super-Flys held for the white suburban male teens that filled the local theaters where these films played (was Quentin Tarantino among them?) was lost on me. Nor was I much fonder of the parade of noble slave dramas that seemed to represent the only other alternative view of African-American life Hollywood seemed interested in exploring.

With 70s America deep in the throes of a nostalgia craze that romanticized the past as a simpler, gentler time (tellingly, devoid of people of color): The Summer of ’42, The Last Picture Show, American Graffiti, The Way We Were—the arrival of Sparkle on the scene felt like a small kind of miracle and very welcome change of pace. The screenplay’s approach to the material may have been a tad trite, the direction amateurish and ill-serving of its young cast, but Sparkle gave African-American kids (the film was rated PG) a nostalgic taste of their own history for a change. It’s not a perfect film, but even with the clich├ęs stacked higher and higher with each scene, there is something I find just irresistibly likable and naively charming about Sparkle.
Sparkle is at its best when it stops propelling its predictable plot forward and pauses long enough to provide keen-eyed details of African-American life in the late 50s. Growing up in a household with four sisters, I recall very well the Sunday evening ritual of hair-straightening with a hot comb.  

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
As a fan of musicals, Sparkle’s primary appeal for me has always been Curtis Mayfield’s music and the sleek, 60s girl-group choreography of Lester Wilson. Mayfield’s songs are catchy, 70s-style riffs on the early R&B/Soul sound of Motown, while Wilson’s choreography captures the stylized, often witty, gesture/posing dance style that became an identifying staple of girl-group performances for years. The songs, as sung by the film’s cast are all so well-performed that there was a bit of an outcry from fans when the soundtrack album for Sparkle was released with Aretha Franklin taking over the vocals exclusively. Although I’ve read conflicting accounts over the years as to the whys of this decision, and I personally prefer the film’s cast interpretation of the songs; one has to imagine that, to the studio, the financial prospects of an Aretha Franklin album must have appeared a great deal more lucrative than that of a soundtrack album from a modest film with no stars in its cast.
Choreographer Charles "Cholly" Atkins
Exclusive Motown choreographer whose routines for musical acts like The Supremes and The Temptations were the inspiration for Lester Wilson's work in Sparkle

PERFORMANCES:
Although the delectably fresh-faced Irene Cara emerged the bigger star in later years as actress, recording artist, and Academy Award®-winning songwriter (for “Flashdance…what a Feeling”), it’s Lonette McKee who gives my favorite performance in Sparkle. She is so electrifyingly good that the temperature of the film drops several degrees for every minute that she’s off screen. A more intuitive director than Sam O’Steen (editor of Rosemary’s Baby making his feature film directorial debut) might have sensed how strongly the prolonged absence of the film’s most dimensional and interesting character would have on Sparkle’s overall impact. McKee's sad eyes and nicely rendered tough-girl stance carry with them a kind of authentic emotional gravitas. Without McKee, Sparkle becomes a little too light for its own good.
Mary Alice as Effie Williams
On the subject of meeting her daughter's new suitor, small-time gangster Satin Struthers (Tony King)-
Effie:"He’s just gonna drag you to the gutter with him."
Sister: "The gutter? How can you say that? He’s as big time as you can get."
Effie: "I’ve lived in Harlem all my life…I know a rat when I see one."

THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
In the impressive array of talent (both young and veteran) that appear in cameo and bit roles, Sparkle pays homage to pioneer African-American entertainers:
Veteran comic actor Don Bexley (best known as Bubba on the TV show Sanford & Son) appears in Sparkle as a the raunchy emcee for the Simmons Hall amateur contest
Legendary comic Timmie Rogers as the M.C. of the Shan-Doo Club where Sisters & The Sisters make their debut.
Back in the days when African-American comics habitually appeared in blackface, spoke in dialect, and wore sloppy clothes; Rogers was the first to appear in a tuxedo, as himself, and daring to speak directly to white audiences (a practice unprecedented in black comics during the 40s ).
He was my father's favorite stand-up comedian.
 Choreographer Michael Peters won a Tony Award for Broadway's Dreamgirls, but is most famous for his choreography for the iconic Michael Jackson music videos Thriller & Beat It.
In Sparkle he appears as an outrageous R&B singer in the style of Screamin' Jay Hawkins
The actress shown briefly in Sparkle portraying a singer in the mode of Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker, is Renn Woods. Woods portrayed Dorothy in the 1976 National Tour of The Wiz and appeared in the films Hair and  Xanadu

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
Sparkle is set in the late 50s, but the film’s footing is too unsure for me to be certain whether the fact that it plays like a movie literally made in the 1950s is wholly intentional. If I have any complaint, it’s that Sparkle's plot is so determined to get to where it needs to go that it rushes the characters along. The film is a lot of engaging fun in its small, slice-of-life moments. The mother ironing in the living room; the kids having to change out of their "school clothes" when they come home; the ever-present neighbor lady who always butts into other people's business; the young men sporting "conk" hairstyles (relaxed-hair pompadours).
Harlem Graffiti
 As earlier stated, Sparkle is at its best when just showing us glimpses of life in late-50s Harlem
All of the above are more compelling than the straight-as-an-arrow course that Sparkle's conventional rags-to-riches storyline  races us through (I've seen the film many times and I'm still unclear as to how long the girls get to enjoy their success before things start to go wrong. It feels like a week.) Watching Sparkle - written by Joel Schumacher and Howard Rosenman - I'm left with the feeling that the plot moves the characters along...not the other way around. Too bad. The characters could have been pretty interesting if fleshed out a bit.
But what Sparkle does particularly well is depict a kind of squalid glamour in the nightclub scenes and musical numbers that gives the film the kind of atmospheric grit lacking in the screenplay. Cinematographer Bruce Surtees (Night Moves, Lenny) paints Sparkle with a dark, Gordon Willis-like palette of claustrophobic shadows that  make for some of the most atmospherically seedy nightclub sequences since Cabaret.
(This is one seriously DARK movie; almost unwatchably so on VHS. Now with HDTV and digitally remastered DVD, Sparkle looks better than ever.)

Sparkle was released in 1976. The same year as The Omen, King Kong, A Star is Born, Family Plot, and Marathon Man; all films with advertising budgets that probably exceeded Sparkle’s entire production costs. I stood in lines to see each of the above films, but I was practically the only person in the San Francisco theater where I first saw Sparkle. As a PG-rated, small-scale period musical with an African-American cast of virtual unknowns and few easily-exploitable elements (no kung-fu mamas or jive-talkin' daddies), Sparkle was a hard sell in the 70s market.
I have no idea if Sparkle ever made a profit, but I’ve read that it has become something of a cult classic over the years. I certainly hope so. Because, flawed as it is, Sparkle was the first film to dramatize the formation of an R&B girl-group and use the formative years of the African-American music scene as a narrative backdrop. As nothing had been done on the subject matter before, it’s my guess that in some small way Sparkle went on to inspire the 1981 Broadway musical, Dreamgirls

Although the current track record for remakes is pretty shabby, I’m going to keep an open mind about the Sparkle remake and wish it well. If nothing else, it’s sure to bring more attention to the original.

ADDENDUM: January 20, 2014
Watched the 2012 remake of Sparkle on DVD. Because this is a blog devoted to movies I love, perhaps the kindest thing I can say about the remake is that, by comparison, it makes the original look like a classic on every count. I actually couldn't believe how weak an effort it was. I loved seeing Whitney Houston, but was dismayed by the fact that with $17 million and thirty plus years of advanced motion picture technology, they couldn't produce a film with even a fraction of the competence of a low budget feature from the 70s. A seriously depressing lack of talent on so many fronts.


AUTOGRAPH FILES: signatures from Phillip Michael Thomas and Lonette McKee  I got in 1978 and 1980, respectively

Copyright © Ken Anderson

6 comments:

  1. Wow, look at young Philip Michael! He wasn't on my radar at all prior to Miami Vice. I need to see this sometime. Lonette McKee has had a decent career on the stage and spent some quality time on the daytime soap As the World Turns at a time when some good acting was needed badly. Last fall, some friends invited me over to watch dual Oscar-winners Irene and Tatum in A Certain Fury. O.M.G. ...... That is all. Thanks for the detailed examination of this one. I foolishly passed up the chance to grab the DVD for $3.00 recently. I won't make that mistake again if I see it once more!

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    1. Oh,brother, was I ever aware of Philip Michael Thomas pre-"Miami-Vice"! My sister and best friend in high school both had killer crushes on PMT at the time. I must have seen "Sparkle" at least 6 times that spring.
      I never got to see McKee on "As the World Turns", but I liked her in "The Cotton Club." And yes, there is little one can say about "Certain Fury" although I had forgotten that it boasted two Oscar winners in the leads. You'd certainly never know it. Thanks, Poseidon3!

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  2. One of my all-time favorite guilty pleasures. I never saw it in the theaters but I do remember when it was released. I was 6 and I remember riding the subway with my mother and seeing the ads plastered everywhere. Finally got to see it around the time "Fame" came out as I had a slight crush on Irene Cara at the time.

    I have the Aretha album as well as mp3's of the originals from the film I am looking forward seeing the remake if only to see Miss Whitney Houston grace the silver screen one last time.

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  3. Film critic Pauline Kael once said that good films are not always the films that we most enjoy (or words to that effect), and I think a film like "Sparkle" bears that out. It's not a perfect film, but it's certainly a lot of fun.
    Irene Cara is indeed crush-worthy.
    You have mp3s of the original songs from the film? You must be one of those people (unlike myself)who actually knows how to use a computer.
    And alas, it's very sad that the film that was to be Houston's return to the screen is to be remembered as her last screen appearance. Thank you so much for commenting.

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  4. Love this film so much that I started a blog for it:

    http://sparkletribute.blogspot.com/

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    1. Hey CAL
      That's a great blog and long overdue! i love the clips and pics you found. I'll have to keep revisiting, this movie is one of my faves.

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