Instead of giving him something he can feel, Judge Bill Gibron just wishes this film about a fictional girl group would simply shut up and go away.
From Downtown to Uptown…to Snooze-ville
Sister (Lonette McKee, Jungle Fever), Delores, and their sibling Sparkle (Irene Cara, Fame) are feisty females living in a poor part of Harlem in the late 1950s. Sister is smitten with Levi (Dorian Harewood, Gothika) while Sparkle gets friendly with local musician Stix (Philip Michael Thomas, Miami Vice). Local boy has dreams of making it as a songwriter, and he gets the fivesome together to perform at an amateur night contest. With their winnings, they prepare to take on the big time, which in their book is a stint at a ritzy hot spot. But before they go on, Levi ditches the gang for his new boss, mobster Satan…sorry, Satin (Tony King, Hell Up in Harlem). Suddenly, the group becomes a trio, as Stix steps behind the scenes. Fast forward a few performances, and Sister has left Levi for his sinister employer, she's frequently getting beaten by the jerk, and she's somehow gotten hooked on heroin. Sparkle still believes in Sister, but it's a downward spiral for Effie's (Mary Alice, The Matrix Revolutions) eldest child. When tragedy finally strikes, it seems that life in the limelight is over for our hopeful heroine. It will take everything Stix has—including dodging the mafia—to make the girl of his dreams Sparkle as a definitive pop diva.
Sparkle has quite a legacy and a substantial fan base to boot. Thanks to a hit soundtrack by Curtis "Freddy's Dead" Mayfield (including the classic "Something He Can Feel," later covered by En Vogue) and the surrounding support of important black films from the era, this 1975 fictionalized look at the rise of girl groups as part of the late '50s/early '60s American music scene sure wants to be the definitive statement on the subject. Centering on the hard-knock story of three Harlem sisters who somehow find themselves fulfilling the dreams of a songwriter named Stix, this amalgamation of all the standard melodramatic storylines—poverty, drugs, abuse both physical and psychological—is accented with mentions of organized crime, the growing civil rights movement, and an off-kilter notion of what constitutes success, to fashion an incredibly insipid storyline. In the mid '70s, when the truth about certain Hitsville legends was finally hitting the fan, this tepid take on the Supremes (with just a little Ronettes and Shangri-Las thrown in for good measure) would have worked, had some real insight been given into the way in which minorities struggled—usually under the auspices of white corporate executives—to reinvent the hillbilly music blasting across the airwaves.
Unfortunately, that fount of knowledge on the African-American experience in the US of A—Joel Schumacher—was hired to handle the screenplay (from a story by another non-minority, Howard Rosenman). For some reason, this former costume designer was high on the list of scribes who could coalesce the black experience into major motion-picture plotting. Want proof? His next two projects were that clipped comedy Car Wash, and the big-budget bomb of the Broadway smash The Wiz. Here, Joel decides that lead sibling, a child given the regrettable name of Sister, must be a combination of Diana Ross (arrogant diva), Tina Turner (macho moron's punching bag), and Billie Holiday (hello, massive drug addiction!). She's a series of narrative highpoints just waiting to happen. Actress Lonette McKee gives it her best, but Sister comes across as a dim doormat, her motivation, beyond the financial, barely in focus. By the time we see her singing torch in a local dive jazz club, the inevitable funeral scene is stamped all over her damp forehead. Similarly, Delores is like an Annette-era Angela Davis, preaching racial uprising and empowerment to a populace that's still playing slave for wealthy white people. She is so noble in her desire to rise up and overcome, she disappears during the film's second act—never to be seen or discussed again.
Then there is Sparkle herself. Played by a then-18-year-old Irene Cara, our film's namesake is the dictionary definition of unhelpful. She keeps the heroin-hopped-up Sister supplied with dope, she abandons her family to fool around with "the man who loves her," otherwise recognizable as the Miami Vice artist formerly known as Phillip Michael Thomas (in a really interesting hairdo), and thinks that once life slaps her down a little, the best way to handle matters is to curl up in a ball and coo like a wounded dove. We are supposed to celebrate Sparkle, root for her rise to the top (even if, in this case, success is spelled as a few one-song stints at some snooty supper club), and hope for some happiness in her otherwise overwrought existence. But Cara is so blank, so still locked in her days as a member of The Electric Company's Short Circus that emotion refuses to register on her face. Even when she's singing, there's a "been there, done that" professionalism to her posing that shouts seasoned veteran, not novice learning the ropes.
Making matters worse, director Sam O'Steen (an editor-turned-filmmaker with Sparkle being his only big-screen credit) has no cinematic acumen whatsoever. He lets scenes go on for far too long and shoots the songs in a style so poorly framed that we barely see the actresses performing. He can zap the energy out of any sequence (just watch what he does when Phillip Michael Thomas takes on local hoodlum Satan…sorry, Satin) and uses far too many shadows to sell his sentiments. Indeed, Sparkle is one dimly lit movie, several scenes looking like they were supposed to be experienced as silhouettes only. From a cast of singers who slaughter Mayfield's music (you frequently want to tell Lonette McKee to find a melody and jump on), choreography that makes high-school musicals look like the work of Martha Graham, and a complete lack of closure on several significant subplots, Sparkle doesn't shine. It's dull, dopey, and derivative.
Obviously understanding the limited appeal of this title, Warner Brothers does very little to drive new fans to this flop. The 1:85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is overly dark, but colorful and clear nonetheless. On the other hand, there are some age issues here, including a few scratches and specks of dirt. As for the audio, there is no new remix provided. Let's repeat that: Curtis Mayfield's expressive score is still stuck in a thin and flat Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono configuration. Not quite the perfect format for a musical, huh? As for added content, there's a trailer and, though it's not advertised on the DVD case, the cardboard slipcover contains a sticker declaring that Aretha Franklin's album of the film's songs is included here. It's good, but kind of strange, when you consider the Queen of Soul had nothing to do with the project and does a much better job of delivering these tunes than the gals in the cast. In essence, that's Sparkle's problem overall. It's been done better, and more effectively, in other formats.
One wonders, if Dreamgirls hadn't hit theaters in December 2006, would Sparkle ever have seen the light of DVD day. The answer is probably "no." Guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical trailer
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