I went to the Academy (AMPAS) last night to see a new film called Sparkle. It's a remake of a 1976 film of the same name which was written by an acquaintance of mine, Joel Schumacher. (At a dinner many years ago at the home of Anne and Arnold Kopelson, Liz Smith and I listened in amazement as Joel told us stories of his days as a window dresser for Barney's department store before turning his talents to film.) I was deeply interested in this new musical for many reasons. It was Whitney Huston's last performance before her unfortunate demise in February, and my Huffington readers will recall the recent article in which I detailed how Whitney got the co-starring role in Bodyguard after I failed in casting Diana Ross and Steve McQueen/then Sidney Poitier, in the leads. And the new film is set in the Detroit of 1968, a period when I was getting deeply involved with singer Diana Ross and Motown record impresario Berry Gordy, her manager, in the pre-production of my film, Lady Sings The Blues, the Billie Holiday film which also featured Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor, detailed in another Huffington Post article. The original Sparkle was a rather tepid telling of the tale of a three-girl singing group featuring a powerful vocal performance by Lonette McKee. It led to the much-more successful Dreamgirls, modeled on Diana and her career with and without The Supremes. For a much more interesting retelling of this ferocious show business saga, we all eagerly await Berry Gordy's new Broadway musical about his life (if he tells it like it really happened! Doubtful.).
Sparkle mother and daughter. Photo from Sony.
The new film was released by a somewhat-defunct division of Sony Pictures called Tri-Star, which brought back delicious memories of a guy named Gary Hendler, my ex-lawyer, who became production head of that division when it was a powerhouse filmmaking entity. First, to Whitney, who I am told worked for 10 years to get this picture made and is listed as an executive producer, while Debra Martin Chase -- a powerful back woman I deeply admire -- is the overall producer. Whitney plays a church-going mother of three rebellious, attractive young women who sing and write music, study for college, and do what rebellious young black woman did then and now. In this version, Whitney is a former entertainer who burned-and-bummed out and now runs a women's clothing store, and holds her girls under what she thinks is an iron thumb, until the thumb breaks. Houston sings but one song -- a strong gospel version of "His Eye is On The Sparrow" -- and my heart did break a little at seeing her somewhat older and rather wasted-looking. But I guess we are blessed at having at least this last view. There is a moving scene at a dinner table when Sister brings her sleazy fiancée to meet her mother, and Whitney, steely-eyes, whispers the memorable line: "Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?"
The Sparkle trio... of Sister & Her Sisters! Photo from Sony.
For me, the standout of the film was the stunning Carmen Ejogo as the eldest, Sister, approaching 30, who will do whatever it takes to get away from the stifling environment at home. She plays the Diana role in the group, Sister and Her Sisters, and is so sensuous it becomes something of a caricature. (But as the producer of that film I mentioned, Lady, there is one scene here where Carmen is wasted and crying which was almost a shot-by-shot replica of the Diana Ross performance in her jail cell. It won Diana an Oscar nomination as Best Actress and I suspect Carmen has a shot at the same. I know I would vote for her.)
I offer kudos to the husband-and-wife team which created this sparkling, powerful entertainment. Screenwriter Mara Brock Akil did a masterful job of capturing the hectic, exciting nightclub-oriented world of Detroit at that time (which my friend, Ed Sarkesian, took my inside of) before the city when into decline. There are some topical references (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on TV, just before he was shot, Nancy Sinatra singing "Boots") but you don't really get a sense of history. Director Salim Akil (who did last year's Jumping the Broom) captures the club scene well, and the musical numbers are professionally staged. I was not enraptured by all of the music, but then again I have the Supremes and Motown music embedded in my brain.
The title role of Sparkle is played adequately by Jordin Sparks, who won American Idol in 2007. The climax, a phonily-staged but engrossing musical extravaganza, Celebrate, reminded me of a less-talented Alicia Keyes backed at the piano by a... gospel group? A word from an older but still red-blooded American boy, the third sister, Dee, an aspiring medical student played by Tika Sumpter, enchanted me... and when she appeared in the final scenes with a then-new cropped Afro hairdo, wow! Just gorgeous. I wanted more of her testy, defiant attitude and less of Sparkle's faux-innocence, which became cloying. The men are all good... the evil, weasily comic, Satin, played by Mike Epps, is a powerful, sad depiction of too many guys like that we all knew. (What about that albino bodyguard he has at his back? That's frightening.) The nice guy-manager and boyfriend to Sparkle, Derek Luke, is also a routine portrayal... he should have spent some time watching films of the real Berry Gordy, a hypnotic, brilliant snake-charmer of a guy who outshines all others in the room and in his world. The smaller role of Sister's first b.f. is an attractive, rough-edged and potentially starring character played with fierce determination by Omari Hardwick. I exited thinking she should have stuck with him... any guy who brings you a jewel box with a picture of a diamond ring in it and a promises to fill it is worth keeping.
I am at a loss to figure out the PG-13 rating. Here is a powerful film with scenes of violence, domestic abuse, drug-taking, some course language. I suppose the powers-that-be at Sony and the ratings board figured that it was also a cautionary tale for young people determined to forge ahead in the uncertain world of show business, and thus should be viewed by that audience, which I understand. I would not bring children under 13 to see it, and only those a few years over if they are mature enough to comprehend the total entity. But as a picture of a pop music world only recently updated, it is a magnificent masterpiece depicting a slice of life which some of us barely comprehend but do appreciate. As Liz Smith said, "It has soul, sound, and sizzle."
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