Classic Soul Cinema: The Original Sparkle

Sparkle1976With all of the hype surrounding the upcoming remake of the motion picture Sparkle with Jordin Sparks in the lead role and the late Whitney Houston in her last movie role, many may have forgotten or not even know about the original motion picture released over 30 years ago.

Premiering on April 7, 1976, the original Sparkle was a low-budget film with mostly relatively unknown but very talented performers and only a few familiar faces.

Oscar winner Irene Cara made her professional debut at age five in the Broadway play Maggie Flynn and performed on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour at age 8, before going on to appear in the soap opera Love of Life and in the children’s TV show Electric Company. She made her motion picture debut in the 1975 film Aaron Loves Angela with Kevin Hooks, and the following year she played the main character Sparkle in the motion picture Sparkle.  Lonette McKee, who would later go on to do roles in Which Way is Up and other notable film and TV projects, was cast as Sister, and Dwan Smith, who played various roles on television shows, played the role of Delores.

Set in Harlem in the late 1950s, Sparkle centers on three sisters (Sparkle, Sister and Delores) who sing in  the church choir and are later convinced by their friend Stix (played by Philip Michael Thomas) to form a singing group. The initial line up consisted of the sisters, Stix and their other friend Levi (played by Dorian Harewood). Calling themselves The Hearts, they perform at a contest in a nightclub to rousing success, winning first prize. Stix and Levi, who decide to join the numbers racket operated by a shady drug dealer named Satin, drop out of the group and the group is renamed Sister & the Sisters. They perform at a posh club and receive a standing ovation.

Satin takes interest in Sister and they become romantically involved. However, she becomes a victim of his abuse and gets hooked on drugs. The sisters’ mother Effie (played by Mary Alice) is concerned about the seediness of show business that appears to be overtaking her daughters. When it is apparent that Satin is the reason for Sister’s downfall, Delores sleeps with one of Satin’s buddies to get information on him so that he will be arrested. The plan backfires and Levi takes the fall and is arrested and locked up. Satin believes Stix dropped a dime on him and the two fight, but Stix prevails.

Meanwhile, Delores is tired of show business and leaves home. Stix also leaves town and show business for a promising construction job. With the group now defunct, Sister performs solo in nightclubs drugged up before she eventually dies.

When Stix hears the news about Sister, he returns to Harlem and tries to reunite with Sparkle and convince her to sing again, but she orders him to leave her apartment. Effie sees the good in Stix and encourages Sparkle to see Stix and to use the gift of singing that God gave her. After rehearsals, Stix is able to book Sister into a renown nightclub with Ray Charles as the opening act, due to his dealings with the mafia which nearly costs his life. With Sparkle now a solo performer with backup singers, she is billed as Sparkle Williams & the Soul Sisters and plays Carnegie Hall and eventually becomes a highly successful recording star.

Sparkle was a huge hit in theaters and became a cult classic. Most of the main actors in the film went on to do other great things in the entertainment industry, notably Irene Cara, who starred in the 1980 film Fame and received an Oscar and Grammy for the song “What A Feeling” from the 1983 film Flashdance. Philip Michael Thomas went on to play Rico Tubbs in the highly acclaimed TV series Miami Vice. Dorian Harewood went on to do a number of roles, most notably as track star Jesse Owens in the 1984 TV movie The Jesse Owens Story.

Sparkle’s soundtrack was also a huge hit. Produced by Curtis Mayfield, who had previously great success with the soundtracks for the films Superfly, Claudine, and Let’s Do It Again, the soundtrack reached number one on the soul charts and number 16 on the pop charts in the summer of 1976. For some reason, instead of using Cara’s, McKee’s, Smith’s and Thomas’ vocals on the soundtrack, Mayfield decided to have the Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin re-record the songs.

In the Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, Mayfield explained, “I should have actually released [the soundtrack] with the kids (the actors in the film), but I was out trying to find somebody to do an album with. Somehow Aretha heard the tunes and fell in love with them and asked if she could do them.”

Franklin’s rendition of the steamy and sensual “Something He Can Feel” was one of the biggest soul hits of 1976, reaching number one for four weeks in June of that year. The song was later covered by En Vogue in 1992 and was equally successful, reaching number one and six on the R&B and pop charts that summer. The video, a loose remake of the scene in the original film when Sister & the Sisters perform the song with classy seductiveness in a nightclub, made En Vogue’s rendition even more memorable.

Franklin’s vocals were used for the score of Sparkle more than likely for commercial reasons. Given that Mayfield’s previous scores featured big names (himself, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and the Staples Singers), the powers that be in charge of the film wanted to keep the “commercial factor” going, much to the chagrin of the actors who sang in the film. Nevertheless, the movie’s superb acting and singing performances are timeless and memorable and, despite the predicted huge success of the remake, they, as well as the original film as a whole, will continue to be enjoyed and revered for many years to come.

–Stephen McMillian

Stephen McMillian is a journalist, writer, actor, filmmaker, dancer, Soul Train historian and soul music historian

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