The film stars Irene Cara, Philip Michael Thomas, Lonette McKee, Dwan Smith, Mary Alice, Dorian Harewood, and Tony King. Curtis Mayfield served as the composer and producer of Sparkle's songs and score.
The film received generally negative reviews at the time of release and was a Box office bomb, barely making $4 million against a $1 million budget. It since received a cult following. The film was remade in 2012 starring Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, and Whitney Houston in her final film role.
The movie begins in Harlem, New York in 1958, and follows the girl group, Sister and the Sisters, which is made up three sisters: Sister (Lonette McKee), Sparkle (Irene Cara), and Delores (Dwan Smith). Stix (Philip Michael Thomas), Sparkle's love interest and the groups manager, is able to help bring the group from "amateur nights to brief stardom before tragedy (dope, melancholia, the wrong man)" ensues and the group splits. Stix gives up on his music career and leaves the city and thus breaking Sparkle's heart. Sister is in an abusive relationship and is hung up on drugs while Delores leaves the city in pursuit of racial equality. In the end, after reconnecting after Sister's funeral, it is only Sparkle and Stix who climb the ladder to success. In short, this is a rags to riches story.Philip M. Thomas as Stix - manager of the girl group, Sparkle's love interest, initial member of the group
Irene Cara as Sparkle Williams - youngest sister who becomes the star of the trio and ultimately a solo artist
Lonette McKee as Sister Williams - initial lead singer of the group, forced to leave because of her drug addiction
Dwan Smith as Delores Williams - middle sister who gives up everything in order to find equality and freedom
Mary Alice as Effie Williams - mother of the sisters, encourages Spakle to pursue her dreams, maid
Dorian Harewood as Levi Brown - Stix's cousin, initially was part of the group before he and Stix left, gets imprisoned
Tony King as Satin Struthers - Sister's love interest, gangster, abuser
Beatrice Winde as Mrs Waters
Paul Lambert as Max Gerber - Effie's employer, connected to the mafia who wants the rights to Sparkle's fame
Joyce Easton as Lee
DeWayne Jessie as Ham
Norma Miller as Doreen Gerber
Talya Ferro as Miss Taylor
Bob Delegall as Mr Daniels
Armelia McQueen as Tune Ann
Don Bexley as Bubbles
Lonne Elder, writer of the Academy Award nominated screenplay for Sounder drafted Sparkle, which Joel Schumacher edited to make a 200-page basis for the film, this film would be his screenwriting debut. John Calley was running Warner Bros. at the time and said Sam O'Steen had to direct the film. He was the infamous editor of Carnal Knowledge, Rosemary's Baby, and Chinatown. This film was Sam O'Steen's debut film as a film director and given the limited budget, he did his best to use what was available to him. The film's story and plot were heavily inspired by the real-life singing group Diana Ross and the Supremes.
In addition, good casting and introducing newer faces was an important feature of the film, something that did not take too much of the budget. There were over 2,000 young ladies who auditioned for the role of Sparkle; Irene Cara ended up with the role and was just 17 when she was cast, she would become the film's breakout star as she went on to do films like Fame. With her other cast mates, the trio "combine their extraordinary freshness and talent to sing to the music of Curtis Mayfield, who composed the music for the film produced by Howard Rosenman." None of the actors cast were big names at the time and many were newcomers, Lonette McKee actually made her feature film debut in this film.
Credit must also be given to cinematographer Bruce Surtees and all other technicians who worked on the film.
Lester Wilson choreographed the movie, and his assistant was Michael Peters, who went on to choreograph “Beat It” and “Thriller” for Michael Jackson.
During the 1960s and 1970s, music paralleled black identity and culture. The early 1960s consisted of freedom music, a direct descendant of gospel music. This genre was aimed at building strong relationships during difficult times by connecting people. Sam Cooke and Freedom Singers are an example of these artists. The late 1960s to early 1970s consisted of soul music which tied in with historical macro events such as: Middle Civil Rights Movement, Great Society, Vietnam War, and Black Power. Soul music encourages everyone to be happy. Some influential artists during this time were James Brown, The Supremes, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder. Next, the mid 1970s consisted of funk music. These songs were political and group focused. Some of these artists include Earth Wind and Fire, Sly and the Family Stone, Parliament Funkadelic, Kool & The Gang, Labelle, and Chaka Khan. Finally, the middle to late 1970s consisted of disco which was essentially peppy dance music. Stand out artists include Gloria Gaynor, Sister Sledge, Diana Ross, and Donna Summer. Within these genres, there are themes of self-determination, racial pride, and having fun. Sparkle captured all these themes as it spans musical genres. All the songs were adapted to the sound of the times, making the film relevant and powerful. Aretha Franklin had a large role with the music that was featured in the film. She even has an entire album called "Sparkle." The other songs in the film were written by Curtis Mayfield. The songs were a huge hit.
While analyzing gender and sexuality, the Black female protagonists in this film can easily be compared to the women in (Cleopatra Jones) and (Coffy). Unlike these films, Sparkle’s protagonists do not come out on top in the same way as Cleo and Coffy do.
Compared to Coffy and Cleo, these women are much more conservative in their looks and the way they convey themselves. In regards to female empowerment, their physical appearance is the only attribute they have and they use it as a tool. In other words, it is their only weapon. Coffy and Cleo both had actual guys and weapons at their disposal to use along with their physical appearance. Going off of this, the sisters are much weaker when looking at female empowerment, especially when there is Coffy and Cleo in the picture.
It is interesting how in Jacquie Jones piece, Construction of Black Sexuality, “the Black male character, as defined through his sexual behavior, is not able to overcome the problematic of domination which begins with a denial of dependency. Instead, the Black male character can only define himself through violent separateness” (250). One very disturbing scene in the film was when Sister and her boyfriend Satin are lying together on a bed. To get a coat, Satin tells sister she has to crawl. Sister does not think he is serious, so he angrily says it again. Satin then begins to brutally punch Sister. When Sister goes to her next performance, her other sisters realize that she has been beaten by Satin. They encourage her to leave him but she just brushes off the violence as it is no big deal; she believes she can just cover up the bruises with makeup and it will be better.
Darlene Clark Hine Shining Thread of Hope brought up the fact that after women joined the Black Power movements, men felt lesser of themselves as they could not protect and support their families. Hine states that “The Black Power movement reacted to this reality with an extreme emphasis on masculinity and an expectation that women would assume traditional female roles as a way of supporting black manhood. And yet, women in these organizations actually managed to make greater progress in some ways than they had in more traditional civil rights groups” (298). The reading also addresses 1976 as a time when things started to change in regards to sexual harassment being a crime. This all relates to black women and their position of power. “The terrible reality of their oppression by men of their own color […] was personal and political dynamite” (302). Bringing this all together, Satin might have felt dominated by Sister and her success/potential success. It is unfortunate that Sister decides to brush it off but this goes with how she did not want to “light the fuse” of oppression by black men on black women.
"Blaxploitation films are notable for the ways they frequently situate "normative" black male identity amongst a variety of ideological "others" (women, homosexuals, other ethnicities) whose presence cannot simply be seen to solidify black manhood."
The 1970s and the Women's Movement provide context for Black films like Sparkle. During this time, Title IX was instated and provided scholarships for female college athletes. In addition, the Equal Rights Amendment of 1972 was a victory for women's suffrage that helped build a dialogue for black women and black women in films.
Drugs, the Mafia, self-determination, and the ghetto are all apparent themes in Sparkle. Black Power in Sparkle is interesting in that there are no positive black male figures in the film. Every man is using women for things like sex, success, and their own selfish reasons. At one point, Jones even addresses black male sexuality and how they assume the role of a white man to achieve power over women. Going off of this, whites in this film are on the periphery and the focus is on the inner struggle between blacks. An example of this is the relationship between Sister and her boyfriend. Satin is an abusive man towards Sister who is involved with drugs and the Mafia. He is the source for all of Sisters' struggles as he pushes her into doing drugs and making her feel helpless as he beats her time and time again. Delores is an example of self-determination as she sees her sister Sister struggling, which makes her realize that she needs to leave town and do things for herself. She is strong and independent enough to pick everything up and leave town, striving for a decent future. According to the Senior Vice President of Programming for IFC and Bravo, Frances Berwick, "Blaxploitation films were some of the most experimental and daring films to come out of both the independent film scene and the studio system, [and] is one of the most ignored and under-appreciated." Blaxploitation includes several sub-types, musical being one of them, and where Sparkle fits in.
Sparkle was domestically released on April 7, 1976 with a running time of 98 minutes. The film was unsuccessful at the box office grossing merely $4 million against a $1 million production budget.
The film received mostly negative views from critics, currently holding a 13% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Variety stated that the general impression is, "somewhere along the line, there was made a decision to cheat - to attempt an honest ghetto drama, but not enough to really go all the way into the characters; to keep the exploitive elements of casual dope and sex, but jump ahead to the convenient tragic results which can be seen on any tv feature; to explore the seedier side of the music business, but not enough to ever get beyond the titillations of pulp storytelling." Richard Eder says the film is a predictable sob story and that the main themes of the story are serious enough and credible. Dave Kehr stated that the film was "[a] hackneyed, ho-hum 1976 feature about a black girl group, clearly modeled on the Supremes." FilmFour stated that "[as] drab as it is, Sparkle's worth renting for Lorette McKee's performance and the cast renditions of Mayfield's songs. But if you're going to buy anything it should be the soundtrack album." However, The Onion's AV Club gave it a B- grade, calling it "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."
Of the people who appeared in the movie, Irene Cara became the film's breakout star: she went on to record many chart topping singles. Lonette McKee went on to other TV and film appearances with Richard Pryor, including playing Denzel Washington's on screen mother in Malcolm X, and Dorian Harewood and Philip Michael Thomas did more TV and film appearances. Thomas would be famous as Ricardo Tubbs on the TV show Miami Vice.
Sparkle was previewed by an appreciative audience in Baltimore in March. The crowd of 1300 is said to have applauded, screamed and displayed loud attestation to their feelings that it was good movie. Yes, this film had all the elements for a Blaxploitation film however, it was not a typical one. Sparkle illustrates "that based on the nature, dignity, interests and ideals of man even blacks from the ghetto are capable of self-fulfillment and ehtical conduct without recourse to supernaturalism; in this case the super-stud, super-chick theory that is so common in the movies made primarily for the black movie goers today."
Sparkle went on to become a cult-classic among African-American audiences, and was remade in 2012 as a Tri-Star Pictures release starring Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston. Directed by Salim and Mara Brock Akil and produced by Stage 6 Films, the film, despite once again receiving mixed to negative reviews, was considered by some to be an improvement from this film. Sparks, Houston, and Mike Epps were all praised individually for their performances. The remake also brought new different aspects to the story and enhanced the drama of the film. For example, Epps who plays the evil Satin was turned into a comedian instead of a gangster. Ultimately, the writing and performances were captivating and multidimensional. In regards to the music, R. Kelly wrote several new songs to complement the original Curtis Mayfield songs.
This film was released later than anticipated, due to the sudden death of Houston. This film was a huge comeback for Houston in the industry. Irene Cara had met Houston a couple of times. She said, ""I remember seeing her mother, Cissy, when I was little, [...] I remember seeing her sing in New York. They were doing a tribute to Burt Bacharach. When Whitney came on to the scene, every time I saw her I saw a little bit of her mother in her." Cara wanted to attend the premiere of the film, but was not able due to a recent foot surgery.