Sparkle

"Sisters" who are sisters, one of them named Sister
★★★
☆
Released: 
1976
Director: 
Sam O'Steen
Starring: 
Irene Cara, Lonette McKee, Philip Michael Thomas, Dwan Smith, Mary Alice
The Setup: 
The ups and downs of a rising female R&B trio.
Discussion: 

I happened upon a VHS copy of this movie for $1 one day and bought it, knowing nothing about it, and then a month later Dreamgirls came out and this movie was released on DVD to ride on its coattails, since this is also perceived to be a thinly-veiled telling of the story of the Supremes. It isn’t, but we’ll get to that later.

We open with a long tracking shot that runs along a gospel choir and then out back into the church. This is Harlem in 1958, and we soon meet our heroines, three neighborhood sisters. I mean, they’re “sisters,” but they’re also sisters. And the oldest one is Sister, played by Lonette McKee, the middle girl named Sparkle, played by Irene Cara, and some third sister. Sister is the oldest [and she looks to be 35 while Irene Cara really looks like a teenager], and she’s a sassy little rebel from the start. So is the youngest girl, who gives her mother shit for working for “those crackers out on Long Island.”

Also on hand is future Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas as Stix, who gives Sparkle her first kiss as she’s bringing in the laundry. This is also the first scene in which one notices that Irene Cara is VERY good! Not only can she sing, she can really act, and she quite convincingly pulls off the tired old scene in which a young girl gets kissed for the first time and finds herself enjoying it more than she expects. She comes back home and there’s a good scene of the three sisters having girl talk as they comb each other’s hair.

So they go to this talent show where a bunch of various groups perform, including a group of four guys dressed as vampires performing “Love Potion #9.” I have to confess that’s something I never expected to see. Then there’s a very good Larry Graham-type crooner [I hope that song is on the soundtrack (PS: It's not)], and for good measure a female singer who is horrible. On the way home the five youngsters [there’s also another guy around named Levi] decide that they could form a group just as good as any of those, and set about doing just that the very next day.

So they rehearse for a bit, with Sister sitting out and throwing off superior attitude, and the next thing you know they’re next up in the talent show as the “Hearts,” all dressed in red with Sister dressed in black and really stepping out to hog the spotlight. One assumes this was intended, but then again from the quizzical looks on the other girls’ faces, one wonders if they were all supposed to be an equal ensemble. Anyway, it’s clear that Sister loves the attention, and you’ll see that she almost falls into the arms of some guy in the audience before one of the girls comes and pulls her away.

Meanwhile the obligatory “dark side of fame” stuff starts early with Levi getting involved with gambling and stuff. And it continues as gangster Satin appears on the scene and takes a shine to Sister after another sterling performance. He is with a date, whom he DUMPS, punches, and has thrown out the back door so he can be with Sister. I hope you’re not sensing anything foreboding. She goes with him and sleeps with him, and comes back the next day all beat up and doing coke! Girl takes her dark side of fame responsibilities serious-like. Meanwhile Sparkle and Stix get a hotel room and start becoming a couple. Did I mention that Sparkle is 15?

SPOILERS > > >
So it goes on. Sister moves out to be with Satin. Her mother comes to a performance, sizes up Satin, and tells “her peace” to Sister afterward. Satin wants Sister to crawl in gratitude for the fur coat he ripped off the woman he threw out, and beats her up when she doesn’t. Then it looks as though Sparkle is knowingly procuring drugs for Sister. Then the third sister [forgot her name] sleeps with Satin’s henchman to get info on Satin that she gives to the police, but it all goes wrong and someone else gets shot, leading Satin and Stix to have a big fight.

I’m not going to tell you the rest, as it is both very complicated and at the same time predictable. There are notable scenes like when the mysterious third sister leaves home, telling off her mother about working for the white man, Irene delivering a great performance as her heart is broken, and Sister cracking up on stage as she barely makes it through “Giving Up,” an amazing song. Then Irene sings a wonderful version of “Precious Lord.” Lots of complications ensue, lots of gangster hugger-mugger [including our heroes getting involved with Jews, treated as being brought to quite a low], then some small signs of resolution as Sparkle becomes a star in her own right, she sings a song, and the movie abruptly just ends.
< < < SPOILERS END

It was okay, but just not quite satisfying. Highlights are obviously the music, which is really quite good. Did I tell you that all of the music for this movie was written by Curtis Mayfield? But it’s more funky pop in the vein of The Emotions than most of his own work. As I mentioned earlier, word [unconfirmed and disputed word, see comment below] is that Aretha Franklin sung all of Sparkle and Sister’s songs, and the soundtrack CD is all Aretha, and unfortunately only includes Sister or Sparkle’s songs, not any of the gems by other artists that fill out the movie. At other times in the movie, however, we are treated to Mayfield’s overbearing and treacly instrumentals, which are all stringy and schmaltzy.

Another obvious plus are the performances, with Lonette McKee being quite good. Although her decline is quite swift, she does a good job of conveying her sullen spite from the start, setting up a convincing motivation for her character’s headlong pursuit of her own degradation. But as I mentioned, Irene Cara as an actress was a real revelation to me. She has the challenge of breathing new life into a cliched role, which she does simply by being so engaged and convincing. It really makes me sad that she wasn’t able to go further in her career. Everyone else is fine, too.

The only problem is that the story is a little slight, and follows a well-worn road, so you have the sense of just hitting the expected points along the way, and this can make one lose interest in the second half. Aside from that there are so many subplots and minor characters and gangsters of differing types that one just gives up on keeping track of them all [witness my total lack of awareness of who the third sister was]. And it starts to feel like the movie doesn’t have enough time to delve into any of the multiple strands in a satisfying way. This movie is often mentioned in the same breath as Dreamgirls and is said to be another telling of the Supremes’ story, but I don’t really see how it relates. Sure it’s an all-female singing trio and the secondary player eventually emerges as the star, but other than that there doesn’t seem to be much similarity at all. And the music is certainly nothing like that of the Supremes.

Still, if you like Dreamgirls and that sort of thing, or showbiz movies in general, or fun and funky girl-pop, this movie is a good way to pass some time.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, especially if you like showbiz stories and sweet funky soul music.