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Sparkle is a backstage musical drama from 1975 that's built up a solid cult following over the years, especially among black audiences. Fans created an online petition to get the film released on DVD in 2004, but it took the success of Dreamgirls to set the Warner Brothers' cogs in motion. Like Dreamgirls, the film tracks the undulating fortunes of a Supremes-style vocal trio trying to make it in the soul explosion of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The story opens in 1958 as three Harlem siblings - Sister (McKee), Delores (Smith) and Sparkle (Cara) - form a group called Sister And The Sisters. Pushed hard by Sparkle's boyfriend - songwriter/manager Stix (Thomas) - the trio graduate rapidly through the local live music scene. They look great together, their songs are fresh and catchy, the harmonies are tight as a gnat's chuff and in Sister they have a natural born pop goddess singing lead. How can they fail?
You know what's coming. Written by Joel Schumacher, (Flatliners, Falling Down, Batman & Robin) Sparkle's plot was tired even back in 1975. Today it's as stale as a Cliff Richard Christmas single. Sure enough drugs, infighting, an abusive boyfriend and financial corruption derail the group. Only one of the sisters has the inner strength to rise up from the wreckage to fulfil her dream. Which one? The clue's in the title.
Therein lies Sparkle's fundamental flaw. Irene Cara gives a decent enough performance in the title role, describing the youngest sibling's journey from church choir mouse to pop soul diva with endearing sincerity. But compared to Sister's iconic mix of mesmerising beauty, belligerent stage presence, God-given vocal talent and destructive self-loathing, Sparkle's character is flatter than a Meatloaf wail. The way that Schumacher's script quickly sacrifices Sister (and the fabulous Lonette McKee) to follow Sparkle's inane story is in keeping with a film that, for its title and subject matter, is almost perversely lacking in theatrical glitz.
The Supremes and their ilk won over audiences with a level of glamour and sophistication that has rarely been matched, a fact that seems to have eluded the makers of Sparkle. Dingy interiors serve the movie well to begin with, evoking the claustrophobia of poverty from which the sisters hope to escape. But as the group climbs the showbiz ladder, the film's miserly production values stay in the bargain basement. It's hard to believe the girls are living the dream when performances at a supposedly swanky nightclub are staged and lit with all the pizzazz of amateur night at the village hall.
Ultimately, of course, a musical lives or dies by its tunes. Sparkle's soundtrack, written and produced by the late, great, funk soul brother Curtis Mayfield, ensures that the film's popularity will endure. It contains an embarrassment of riches including 'Jump', 'Rock With Me', 'Loving You Baby', 'I Get High', 'Look Into Your Heart' and '(Giving Him) Something He Can Feel', which is surely one of the best tracks ever to be written specifically for a movie.
In the film, the songs are well performed by the talented cast. However, for the accompanying soundtrack album, Mayfield brought in Aretha Franklin to sing lead vocals. The US Sparkle DVD comes with an extra CD that includes five of their sublime collaborations. If Warners had been as generous with their UK release, recommending it would have been a no-brainer.