"Sparkle"
August 23, 2012, 02:10 PM
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Entertaining movie for women.

It's a remake of the little-known 1976 backstage musical about three black sisters who form a girl group in Harlem in 1958, now restaged in 1968 Detroit. So, it's a lot like the early 1980s musical about the Supremes, Dreamgirls, but the songs are better. The new version of Sparkle keeps much of the original score by the late Curtis Mayfield, who composed the movie's songs as a follow-up to his hit score for Superfly. (A few new songs by R. Kelly are added.) 

Listening to Sparkle's first couple of talent show numbers, I realized this movie had to be a remake because Hollywood can't come up with movie songs this good anymore. Hollywood used to remake movies because the originals had turned out better than expected, like The Manchurian Candidate. But it makes more sense to remake films that flopped for fixable reasons, but have underexposed resources.

Mike Epps has the most interesting role as the show-biz villain, rather like Purple Rain's Morris Dees Day. Epps even has an albino sidekick. (Why? Because black albinos are interesting to look at. I told, you this movie is entertaining.) Epps is the bad guy whom the bad girl eldest sister is attracted to. Epps plays a black stand-up comic who is a regular on white people's TV because he tells jokes making fun of black people for being so stupid as to burn down their neighborhoods in the 1967 Detroit riots. I watched a lot of television in 1968 and can't actually recall any comedians like that, but it's an intriguing concept. 

The late Whitney Houston plays the mother of the three singers. She's a former singer who became an alcoholic, found Jesus, quit show biz, and now wants her daughters to follow a more bourgeois path through life than she did. (They live in a large, spotless how-can-they-afford-that house.)

Jordin Sparks, the winner of American Idol a half decade ago, plays the ingenue, Sparkle, who is both sweet and — for unexplained reasons — a pop songwriting genius in the style of Curtis Mayfield. Nor is any attempt made to explain why Sparks/Sparkle has a white accent when the rest of her family have black accents. As I pointed out four years ago, Sparks' father was an NFL cornerback and her mother is white:

Whites like blacks, but black teens these days don't like much of anything they consider white. They like just hip-hop and basketball (and, okay, football, too). Almost everything else is considered a violation of keeping it real. ... 

So, the small number of mulattos who grew up with one non-black parent and thus get introduced to a wider range of cultural options beyond rap and hoops are disproportionately taking the plums that people a generation ago assumed blacks in general would be achieving. ...
There's somebody who's an even better example of this rise of the new mulatto elite, but I can't quite think of his name at the moment. 

One interesting scene shows black teens at Thursday night bible study grooving to Eric Clapton's Cream playing  "Sunshine of Your Love" on Whitney's new color TV. That's kind of surprising because this is in contrast to Dreamgirls, in which white music is all stolen from blacks and blacks don't like any white music. I was only a kid in 1968 so I don't have a good sense of which version of history is really true. My impression is that blacks weren't as reflexively anti-white in musical ideology back then, and might well have thought that while Cream wasn't to their taste, it was still pretty cool in small doses, but I really don't know.

In reading about Curtis Mayfield on Wikipedia, it said that both Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton cited Mayfield's guitar playing for the Impressions as an influence. My guess would be that the original plan in the movie was to use a Hendrix clip, but that didn't work out for intellectual property rights reasons or whatever so they went with a Clapton clip instead.

The polemical theme of Prince's brilliant Super Bowl half time show a few years ago was that white and black America needs each other musically and it was time to get over this who stole what from whom grievance, which is why he covered songs written by whites and famously covered by blacks: "All Along the Watchtower" (Dylan/Hendrix) and "Proud Mary" (Fogerty/Ike and Tina Turner). Or at least that's what I imagined Prince was arguing.