Shine on: Houston and company ‘sparkle’ on reimagined soundtrack

Sparkle, the 1976 cult classic about three singing sisters from Harlem that returns to theaters this Friday, is one of my favorite movies. Ever.

People rarely agree with me on this, but I must say that when it comes to the songs woven through the story, I have always preferred the selections used in the film that featured Oscar winner Irene Cara and Lonette McKee handling the lead vocals. There’s just something about them that resonates with me.

Before folks get upset, I am not throwing shade at Aretha Franklin. Her gold soundtrack album, which was composed and produced by Curtis Mayfield, is most certainly a treasure. It’s a thrilling LP, with “Look Into Your Heart,” the R&B chart topper “Something He Can Feel” and the haunting “I Get High” ranking among the best performances of the singer’s Atlantic Records era. However, the beauty of the original Sparkle was that at its heart, it was about average girls from the block with big talent and a bigger dream – and Franklin’s royal riffs and runs simply didn’t retain Cara and McKee’s innocence and earthy grit.  Lost in the collection that was released commercially was the joy of youth – and the pain of losing it – the made the film and its supporting songs so accessible.

Needless to say, the soundtrack for the new version of the film had a lot to live up to when it hit shelves a few weeks back. Longtime fans will be pleasantly surprised to find that the lean 11-track album is a satisfying nod to Motor City cool (the movie’s setting is changed from New York to Detroit), effectively uniting the gospel fervor of Martha and the Vandellas and the demure pop-soul of the Supremes. American Idol champion Jordin Sparks, one-time Universal signee Tika Sumpter and Carmen Ejogo work well within this framework, channeling the dreamy energy and underlying tension of the girl group phenomenon with a zeal that’s quite true to the original film’s interpretations.  In a sad bit of irony, however, the album will go down in the annals of film soundtracks as the coda to the musical that was the life of Whitney Houston, the fallen pop legend largely responsible for bringing the picture – a cherished part of her teen years in Jersey – back to the silver screen.

The holdovers from the original soundtrack – “Jump,” “Hooked On Your Love,” “Something He Can Feel” and “Look Into Your Heart” – recall the girlish fancy of Cara and McKee rather than Franklin’s declarative savvy, and that to me is a plus. “Hooked On Your Love,” which was my favorite ballad from the first film, is the strongest by far, as it simmers with an easy sexiness perfectly suited to Ejogo’s sultry rasp. The new tunes aren’t half bad, either: The charming Sparks shines on “Love Will” and the showy “One Wing,” while Ejogo does her thing on the kittenish soul-rocker “Yes I Do.”  Elsewhere, Cee Lo Green and Goapele offer up two of the album’s most exhilarating moments, bringing bottom heavy, proto-funk on “I’m A Man” and “Running,” respectively.

Much has been said about what years of hard living did to Houston’s voice, but on the chilling “His Eye Is On The Sparrow,” the pained, husky tones that supplanted that crisp mezzo-soprano are at once heartbreaking and triumphant. This is not the instrument central to The Preacher’s Wife and expecting such is unfair – what is here is the last stand for a Houston of a different time, a different journey and a different generation. The cry of a woman pushing past hurt and sorrow, it’s an unaffected performance that shows that under the right circumstances and with a little more time, Houston would have honed that voice into a fresh, newly seasoned gift. The classy neo-disco jam “Celebrate,” a duet with Sparks that closes the album, only heightens the sense of loss that will forever be associated with Houston’s tragic February passing.

It may not be as ingenious as the 1976 film’s backdrop or Franklin’s album, but this variation of the Sparkle songbook is its own brand of Motown-inspired ebullience. A fine tribute to both its origin and Houston, fans of good old-fashioned musicianship and retro glamour will find this soundtrack to be a delight.

Check out the film’s beautiful cast grooving in the video for “Celebrate.”

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