"It's a long way from the ghetto to the number-one spot on the musical charts," the unmistakable voice of Casey Kasem says over the trailer for Sparkle. Much like Kasem, this 1976 musical melodrama has no trouble dealing in clichés. But also like Kasem, it sells clichés, and music, pretty well. Set in '50s New York but loosely, extremely loosely, inspired by the story of The Supremes, it's a rags-to-riches story that doesn't miss a stop along the well-trod ghetto-to-musical-charts path, but makes its journey with tuneful conviction.
Released at the tail end of the blaxploitation era, and shot within blaxploitation's usual budgetary restrictions, Sparkle wisely spends money where it counts most. The original songs by Curtis Mayfield (including "Something He Can Feel," a hit for Aretha Franklin in 1976 and En Vogue in '92) sound fresh without seeming out of place in the '50s setting. (Dreamgirls should have taken notes.) Singing those songs are Sister And The Sisters, a sister act (of course) led by Lonette McKee, a natural talent who lets her self-destructive impulses get the better of her, forcing the younger Sparkle (Irene Cara) to shoulder the responsibility.
Scripted by a young Joel Schumacher and directed by esteemed editor Sam O'Steen, the film relies too heavily on dramatic shorthand. McKee, for instance, goes from hooch and heavy petting to coke addiction and an abusive relationship seemingly between scenes. But as a musical pageant with a lovingly realized setting, it gets the job done. Early scenes include a trip to an all-star "Great Rock And Roll Show" (one of those 10-acts-for-$1.50 shows that make music fans wish they had time machines) and an amateur night at an Apollo-like nightclub. And O'Steen stages the musical numbers cleverly, particularly a sweet duet between McKee and her songwriter/love interest (played by a pre-Tubbs Philip Michael Thomas), accompanied only by the sound of tinny, in-studio playback. This story has been told better elsewhere, and without falling apart in the end, but conviction takes the film a long way.
Key features: The second disc features Aretha Franklin's recordings of Mayfield's songs, and will surely get more replays than the film itself.