Separated by 36 years and profound changes in black culture, the two films known as "Sparkle" open a window into the history of soul music past and present. The original, released in 1976 and the new version, both tell the story of a family of female singers in the '60s embroiled (1) in a melodramatic struggle (2) to make it (3) in the legendarily treacherous record business. In both "Sparkle" films the title character is a good girl with a fine voice (Irene Cara in the original, "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks now) who has to mature as a performer and a woman when her older, wilder sibling, Sister (Lonette McKee then, Carmen Ejogo now), falls Billie Holiday-like victim to both abuse by men and drug addiction.
Between them the two films have engaged the talents of some of the most important figures in soul music: Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, R. Kelly and Whitney Houston.
The first "Sparkle" arrived at a particularly fraught (4) time in black American culture. Soul music, a passionate melding (5) of gospel vocal styles and secular subject matter, was ebbing (6) as a force while dance grooves by self-contained bands or disco studio ensembles took over (7) as the hippest sounds on the radio. The innovations that hip-hop and Prince would introduce to black popular music were still years away. "Sparkle" represented an early example of nostalgia for the soul era, though the movie was just a scant (8) decade removed from the genre's artistic and commercial peak. The film predates the much more celebrated Broadway retro-soul musical "Dreamgirls" by five years. But where "Dreamgirls" used a painfully weak pseudo-R&B score to tell its tale of a star-crossed (9) female vocal group, "Sparkle" employed Mayfield, one of soul music's most gifted singer-songwriters, to compose a score that echoed the innocence and desire of the kind of early-'60s hits he'd written for his group, the Impressions, and many others.
Intensifying the nostalgia at the heart of the project was the choice of soundtrack performer: It was Aretha Franklin, with her powerful voice, not the actresses who performed the songs in the film, who was asked to record the album. So you had Mayfield and Franklin, pillars of '60s soul at its height, returning to the kind of stripped-down (10) R&B arrangements they (and almost everyone else in black music) had abandoned by 1972 or so. For Franklin the Mayfield songs provided a potent albeit (11) brief return to form; for the rest of that decade she would flounder (12) creatively and make some of her worst recordings. (The 1979 disco-flavored "La Diva" was the poorest-selling album of her classic Atlantic Records years and deserved to be.)
That "Sparkle" existed at all is a testament to a small, underappreciated post-blaxploitation (13) moment in Hollywood when several non-ghetto-centric films made it through the production pipeline. Pimps, players and private eyes may dominate our memories of that controversial period in American film, but several sweet-natured human-interest stories, notably "Cooley High," "Car Wash" and "Sparkle," were released in the mid-'70s. As well-intentioned as many of these films were, they didn't necessarily mean that Hollywood was opening its doors wide to black filmmakers. "Sparkle," for example, was written by a young Joel Schumacher. Though now a long established mainstream Hollywood director, Schumacher first made his mark in movies as a "black" screenwriter, helping create "Car Wash," "The Wiz" and "D.C. Cab" before breaking into "white" movies with "St. Elmo's Fire" in 1985.
Despite its relatively mainstream obscurity "Sparkle" (directed by Sam O'Steen) became a true cult film in black America. Not only was it one of the few films to celebrate a golden era of black music, but it also had a good-looking cast of young actors and actresses, including McKee, who had star status in Harlem if not Hollywood. And the women had lead roles, rare in film even as womanist black literature was generating scores of enduring female heroines. (I owned a VHS copy in the 1980s, and I found that offering a private screening at my place, plus dinner, would get many dates back in the day, a testament to its appeal and to the fact that more people had heard the soundtrack than had seen the movie.)
If the first "Sparkle" is an artifact of the post-blaxploitation era, then the new incarnation is very much influenced by Tyler Perry's formula for 21st-century black film success. The director, Salim Akil, and his screenwriter (and wife), Mara Brock Akil, have maintained the original's focus on the fortunes and tragedies of the sisters, but now the male characters play a much more subservient role, very much in keeping with (14) the plotting (15) of Perry's work.
Instead of Sparkle being simply a singer, she is now an Alicia Keys-style singer-songwriter whose journey to artistic maturity grounds the story. The third sister, Delores (played by Tika Sumpter), who is an afterthought in the original, becomes a feisty (16) young woman with buppie intentions and is more central to the plot.
Most crucially, from a commercial viewpoint, is that Christianity's centrality to the black experience is affirmed in this script, not surprising when you consider that the influential minister T.D. Jakes is on board as a producer.
The mother's role, originated by the superb Mary Alice, is greatly expanded to accommodate the casting of Whitney Houston, as a fallen soul singer raising her three daughters as devoutly as possible. This stern (17) woman is a stickler (18) for black church ritual, imposing nighttime Bible study sessions and inviting her minister to family dinners. It is a part that could have harbingered (19) a comeback for the singer. Now it becomes an at-times-uncomfortable coda to her life. A scene in which Houston's character fiercely declares her religious fervor, while admitting past missteps, underlines the film's spiritual politics and serves as an eerie (20) reminder of the mistakes that led to Houston's death in February.
Several new songs have been added to the soundtrack, including a few by R. Kelly, who, like Mayfield, is a product of Chicago's rich musical heritage. Ejogo carries the musical weight for most of the film with Sparks, along with established vocalists Cee Lo Greene and Goapele, capturing the period flavor of the new material. But the film's musical emotional high point is a performance of the gospel standard "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" by Houston. Sounding husky and committed, confident and intense, her voice builds a bridge between the worlds of the secular and spiritual music she once so expertly walked.
But for these two films with the same name, separated by five decades, that transcendent performance may be this mini-franchise's greatest claim to history.
1. to embroil: implicar
2. struggle: lluita
3. to make it: aconseguir l'èxit
4. fraught: problemàtic
5. melding: fusió
6. to ebb: minvar
7. to take over: imposar-se
8. scant: escàs
9. star-crossed: predestinat a la tragèdia
10. stripped-down: minimalista
11. albeit: encara que
12. to flounder: fracassar
13. blaxploitation: pel·lícules fetes per la comunitat afroamericana
14. in keeping with: en conformitat amb
15. plotting: línies argumentals
16. feisty: combatiu
17. stern: sever
18. stickler: estricte
19. to harbinger: presagiar
20. eerie: inquietant
Find the following words in the text.
1. Generic word for brother or sister.
2. The most fashionable and up-to-date.
3. Fictional story.
4. The music for a film.
5. The list of future film productions.
6. A man who controls and exploits a prostitute.
7. A private detective.
Complete these sentences with the correct words.
1. Two films known as "Sparkle" open a window ___ the history of soul music.
2. Intensifying the nostalgia ___ the heart of the project was the choice of performer.
3. Several new songs have been added ___ the soundtrack.
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