It is this fan base that led me to track down the film, which I had never seen until this week, some two decades after its theatrical release. More than a cult following, "Sparkle" has inspired pure devotion in many. Surely that devotion must be well founded; after all, it's a musical with Irene Cara, so something's bound to click.
It turns out that "Sparkle" is nothing but a camped-up, melodramatic disaster, penned by none other than Joel Schumacher just prior to his work on "Car Wash" and "The Wiz" (because nobody gets Black America quite like the flaming white guy who put nipples on Batman's outfit). The script is desperate to have it all: spousal abuse, mobsters, teen romance, a funeral, and plenty of music. Schumacher's screenplay plays it up for full camp value - but then director Sam O'Steen (better known for his editing work on such titles as "Chinatown" and "Rosemary's Baby") and his cast plays it deadly serious, resulting in a confused, hokey mess.
It's Harlem in the 1950s, and three sisters - Sister (Lonette McKee), Sparkle (Irene Cara), and Delores (Dwan Smith) - get talked into starting up a music act by boyfriends Stix (a very young Philip Michael Thomas) and Levi (Dorian Harewood). A co-ed mix doesn't work, so soon the boys are out and the girls are in as Sister and the Sisters, which has to be the laziest group name in movie musical history. On their ride to fame, Sister shacks up with an abusive pimp; no matter how many he's-no-good-for-you speeches their mother (Mary Alice) delivers, Sister just won't leave, because he's got all the drugs, you see.
Ah, but Sister's downfall is Sparkle's triumph, as she stays clean, plays nice, and makes it all the way to Carnegie Hall. But wait! Stix borrowed some start-up cash from the local mob, and they want more than just sixteen percent interest - they want a cut of Sparkle's profits, or it'll be Stix's head!
Each scene is played to the hilt, with Curtis Mayfield's musical score pumping in the cheesy violins as if on loan from the soap opera filming next door. Schumacher amps the dialogue to the most ridiculous degree possible. ("I've lived in Harlem all my life. I know a rat when I see one!") The cast falls over themselves trying to sell such lunacy.
And the music. Oh, the music is good - it's from Curtis Mayfield, of course it's good, even if it's more disco-fueled than authentic 50s R&B - but it's so, so bad here. The group's introductory song is a colossal mess, uninspired and laughable. Later, we discover McKee to be no vocalist; listening to her take lead on "Something He Can Feel" is one of the film's most painful experiences. Gone is the sexiness inherent in the tune, replaced by screeching and off-key howling. (It's no surprise, then, that the film's soundtrack album replaced McKee's vocals with a redub by Aretha Franklin.)
When Cara takes over at center stage, the performances naturally improve, yet the direction remains disappointingly flat. Of all the movie's musical numbers, only one - a duet between Cara and Thomas in which the camera remains steady on a close-up of the two lovers for the entire song - manages to thrill. The rest are flatly staged, sucking the life out of the proceedings. The finale, which should be a rousing showstopper, winds up as cheap filler in between shots of Stix getting into trouble with the mob. Blah.
Despite the mess, I can understand the film's appeal. There's plenty of camp and cheese and thick, thick melodrama to win over the crowd that likes their movies big and sassy and overflowing with ridiculously grandiose madness. O'Steen and Schumacher have packed their little film with big characters and big situations, and it's all so overdone that you can't help but smile. But not too much - it's still a lousy movie, the kind where camp does not manage to equal fun.
Long unavailable, Warner Brothers finally releases "Sparkle" on DVD... one week after the similarly-themed "Dreamgirls" hit theaters. And the studio doesn't care about hiding their obvious tie-in interests; right there on the cover is a name-drop of Bill Condon's Oscar contender.
Video & Audio
Warner Bros. put no effort at all toward cleaning up the film for disc. The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer is grainy and dark, showing off all the flaws of the movie's original low budget look. The result is an image that looks only slightly better than VHS quality.
Purists will admire the inclusion of the original mono soundtrack, while fans hoping for a more beefed-up modern mix will be disappointed to learn that mono is all you get. Optional English subtitles are provided.
The DVD itself includes only the theatrical trailer, narrated by Casey Kasem (!) and presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Packaged with the DVD is a CD of five Aretha Franklin songs from the original soundtrack album. It's a good collection of songs and an improvement over what the movie offers; however, those wishing for the complete album will have to buy it separately. There is no mention of the CD on the DVD cover itself - a sticker has been added onto the slipcover to hype it - suggesting that either this was a last-minute inclusion or the CD is a limited-run deal.
"Sparkle" die-hards will be glad to finally get their favorite movie on DVD, but thoroughly disappointed by the presentation. Newcomers to the movie should just Skip It altogether, unless you're in the mood for some craptastic camp.