Blu-ray Review: Sparkle (1976)

Written by future director Joel Schumacher from a story by Howard Rosenman, and inspired by the history of The Supremes, Sparkle was a box office disappointment when it was released in 1976, but has since become a cult classic particularly among African-American audiences, and was  remade in 2012 starring Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks. The original version of Sparkle is now back on Blu-ray courtesy of Warner Archive.

Harlem 1958: The Williams sisters, Sparkle (Irene Cara), Delores (Dwan Smith), and Sister (Lonette McKee), the eldest, are three teenage sisters living with their mother, Effie (Mary Alice). The three girls sing in the church choir. Fellow choir member Stix Warren (a pre-Miami Vice Phillip Michael Thomas) has a crush on Sparkle and ambitions to be a songwriter. Stix persuades friend and choir member Levi Brown (Dorian Harewood) to join him and the Williams sisters in a talent contest as a group, and they win, primarily on the strength of the sisters. Stix is thrilled, but Levi isn’t really interested in the business. While he remains friendly with group, Levi is fascinated by the underworld and working for a local crook named Satin Struthers (Tony King). Stix shifts to management duties, making the three sisters a powerful trio.

Refashioned Sister and the Sisters, their star is quickly on the rise. A sensation on the local club scene, the sisters have three distinct personalities, creating a stumbling block to fame and fortune. Sister is beautiful and self-assured, but falls under the spell of Satin, who gets her addicted to drugs. Delores ultimately finds herself more interested in political and racial issues, while a teenage Sparkle is destined to become the biggest star.

Dreamgirls before there was Dreamgirls, but with a ridiculous script. Really, was Joel Schumacher the only writer available? It’s all so melodramatic. Instead of sticking to its musical roots, Schumacher weighs the story down with external distractions–the mob, spousal abuse, a funeral–and turns it up to eleven for full camp. But director Sam O’Steen–best known for his work as an editor The Graduate, Catch-22 and Chinatown among them–has his actors play it seriously, which given the ridiculous dialogue (I’ve lived in Harlem all my life. I know a rat when I see one!”), makes for unintended laughs.

Problems with the narrative aside, the strongest element of the film is the music. Composed by Curtis Mayfield, the soundtrack yielded such hits as “Look into Your Heart” and “Loving You Baby.” While the songs are sung by Irene Cara, Lonette McKee and Dwan Smith in the film, in a unique arrangement, Aretha Franklin sang them on the soundtrack album. “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” enjoyed renewed popularity in 1990 when R&B divas En Vogue recorded the song.

Presented in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, Warner Archive’s 1080p transfer is a solid one. Sparkle was shot by Bruce Surtees, whose preference for low light was well known, and this film bares that out. Despite that, the grain in the image appears natural and controlled. While detail isn’t the best, it appears to be a function of the original photography, and not the fault of the Blu-ray. Blacks are solid and contrast is fine. Colors are well saturated throughout, though the films palette isn’t particularly bright. Dirt, scratches, or other flaws are nonexistent.

The lossless DTS-HD MA 1.0 mono track is a satisfactory presentation. Bass is surprisingly deep, most noticeable during an early choir rehearsal. During musical numbers, the highs can occasionally sound a bit tinny, and the midrange slightly muddy, but this is due to the age of the source, not the quality of the Blu-ray. Dialogue is clean, clear and concise throughout.

English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles are included.

The following extras are available:

  • Trailer (HD, 3:08) Narrated by Casey Kassem.

Sparkle (1976)
Sparkle (1976)

Movie title: Sparkle (1976)

Country: USA

Duration: 98 min

Director(s): Sam O'Steen

Actor(s): Philip Michael Thomas, Lonette McKee, Irene Cara, Dwan Smith, Dorian Harewood , Mary Alice

Genre: Romance, Music, Musical, Melodrama, Period, Drama

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