One of the best things to emerge from the film version of Dreamgirls is the release of an even better movie, 1976’s Sparkle, now on DVD for the first time. The plots are superficially similar — a young, female soul-music-era trio hits both trouble and the big time. But Sparkle tells a story of music-biz hustling and the passions of the people behind such hustle with so much more conviction, clarity, and, yes, soul that it glows more brightly even on a much lower budget.
In Sparkle, three Harlem siblings played by Lonette McKee (‘Round Midnight), Irene Cara (Fame), and Dwan Smith form Sister and the Sisters, a vocal trio aided by the crackling tunes written by their friend Stix (a pre-Miami Vice Philip Michael Thomas). Their manager is another neighborhood chum, Levi (Dorian Harewood). Levi is in love with McKee’s vampy Sister, while Stix is sweet on Cara’s tender Sparkle. Pretty soon, they’re knocking ‘em dead in local talent shows — and who wouldn’t with music written and arranged by the great Curtis Mayfield? (Aside from his justly celebrated score for Superfly, the late Mayfield’s other shamefully little-known work includes his soundtrack for the wonderful 1974 romance Claudine.)
Sister and the Sisters get a crack at stardom when a thug with connections named Satin (Tony King) takes over, booking the girls into bigger venues. He also takes Sister as his mistress, turning her on to drugs and thus turning her into an easy victim for his sadistic physical abuse. McKee’s character is initially the film’s focus, but once she descends into addiction and leaves, Sparkle takes the group to the top, and Cara’s thin but lovely voice carries the rest of the movie. Director Sam O’Steen and screenwriters Joel Schumacher and Howard Rosenman handle the melodrama delicately; even in ‘76, this was familiar movie-musical territory, and so the filmmakers left plenty of room for vibrant recording-studio and in-concert scenes of the women singing such knockout songs as ”Look Into Your Heart” and ”Something He Can Feel” — songs that should have become pop standards.
The DVD has but one important extra: a five-song CD taken from the original soundtrack album, on which Mayfield’s songs were sung by Aretha Franklin (who’s not in the movie). It may sound like an odd concept now, but that full-length LP was one of the high-water marks of both Franklin’s and Mayfield’s latter-day careers, and even the mere five selections here are staggering soul performances. The sticker on the DVD box says, ”Before Dreamgirls There Was Sparkle!” You said it, brother.