Sister is turned-on and turned-out by the dope pusher/gangster Satin, played with swagger by former football player Tony King. After she ODs on cocaine (“Sister can’t fly on one wing,”), her meek younger sibling Sparkle goes on to stardom.
“Unlike a lot of black movies released during that era, Sparkle wasn’t ghetto,” says Brian Scott, who also saw the film on its opening day, April 7, 1976. An aspiring New York artist and dancer, he fell in love with the bold film about a trio of (blood) soul sisters trying to sing their way out of the ’hood. Scott was not only thrilled by the fine-tuned acting and singing of composer Curtis Mayfield’s beautiful songs, he was also impressed with the film’s choreography. “Lester Wilson, who later worked on Saturday Night Fever, put beautiful movements into every word sung. From Sister’s breakout in the ‘Jump’ scene to the last number of Sparkle Williams and the Soul Ladies doing ‘Loving You Baby,’ the moves are subtle, natural, and beautiful.”
Philadelphia-based radio personality Dyana Williams was working at WBLS in New York City when Sparkle debuted. “Being from Harlem, I relished seeing that film,” Williams recalls. “The story of the sisters’ ambitious climb to the top was absolutely wonderful, and actress Mary Alice, who played their mother, delivered a sympathetic and impactful portrayal as a parent who struggles to keep her family grounded and drug-addicted daughter alive. It was good to see story lines that dealt with artists; black love; family struggles; and the destructive force of unchecked celebrity and drug abuse, if one doesn’t have rooted values,” Williams continues. “And don’t even get me started talking about Curtis Mayfield’s great music.”
With Mayfield’s production and Aretha Franklin’s vocals, the Sparkle soundtrack was an instant classic. However, legend has it that while Mayfield wanted her to sing in her upper register, the Queen of Soul resisted. Two versions were recorded and Mayfield triumphed—as did Franklin. After she previously released failed albums, Sparkle was certified Gold and the lead single, “Something He Can Feel,” went to No. 1 on the R&B charts (and was famously covered by En Vogue in 1992). Oakland-based neo-soul singer Goapele, who appears in the remake, believes Mayfield’s compositions are timeless. “His style of production and lyrics could come out today,” she says. “His music was funky and dark with much emotion.”
While the forthcoming remake, both the film debut of American Idol winner Jordin Sparks and the swan song of the brilliant Whitney Houston, is perhaps the most anticipated black film of the summer, as Williams says, “After all these years, the original Sparkle still holds up.”