The youngest of three singing, churchgoing sisters being raised by their tough, devout Christian mother, Sparkle Anderson has a prodigy's gift for songwriting. She doesn't fancy herself much of a solo singer—that's a role better filled by her pretty, older sibling Tammy (called Sister by both family and friends). But Sparkle keeps jotting lyrics and melodies into a treasured red notebook nonetheless.
Then one night in 1968, Sparkle, Sister and middle sibling Delores (who goes by Dee) sneak out from under Momma's watchful eye and perform one of Sparkle's songs at Detroit's Discovery Club. It's an aptly named venue. A would-be music mover and shaker named Stix is drawn to Sparkle, while his unemployed cousin Levi is taken with Sister.
Courtship commences as Stix romances Sparkle and tries to convince the three sisters to embark upon a musical career. And he delivers on his promises, booking Sister and Her Sisters, as their group is known, in clubs throughout Detroit's burgeoning late-'60s musical scene.
Fame, it seems, is only one big break away.
But fame rarely comes without paying a price, as Sparkle and her sisters learn—and as their mother, Emma Anderson, learned the hard way before them.
As the Anderson girls' star rises, Sister rebuffs Levi's earnest efforts to win her heart, accepting a proposal (against her sisters' counsel) from a successful-but-oily comedian named Satin Struthers. It's a fateful decision driven by Sister's fear of being stuck in dead-end jobs the rest of her life. In other words, she's determined to avoid the fate of their mother, whose own dreams of being a singer were cut short by a teenage pregnancy and substance abuse.
Indeed, Emma has earned a doctorate at life's school of hard knocks. And she knows the path to fame is fraught with spiritual peril. A committed Christian now, she's determined to keep her daughters on the straight and narrow, determined to make sure they don't duplicate her mistakes.
Too late. Sister has already wandered down the prodigal path, and her impetuous decision to marry Satin degenerates into a numbed haze of cocaine use and domestic abuse, jeopardizing the group's growing success.
As for Sparkle, well, when Momma finds out what she and her sisters have been up to, it's ultimatum time: You can follow your dream and face certain heartbreak, Emma warns. Or you can relinquish worldly, sensual folly and recommit to using your gifts to serve God.
Sparkle isn't convinced the decision placed before her is quite so simple.
"Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?" Emma asks her daughters after finding out about their clandestine musical career. Emma strives throughout the film to pass on her values to them. She says she only ever wanted her children to do three things: show respect, get an education and cultivate their relationship with the Lord. When they are unwilling to abide by those terms, she kicks them out of the house. Eventually, though, she softens and is able to show her daughters tender love as well as tough love. Dee thanks her mother for being so strict and credits her approach with helping her get accepted into medical school.
Though they don't always make the right choices, Sparkle, Sister and Dee try to love and support one another—including multiple attempts by Sparkle and Dee to help their increasingly troubled older sister escape the abusive relationship she's trapped in.
A confrontational scene between Sister and her mother helps us understand the roots of the girl's rebellion, namely that she was forced into mothering her two little sisters when Emma was incapacitated by drugs and alcohol. Sister bluntly tells her mom that she was forced to assume responsibilities that she wasn't ready for, and that doing so alienated them from each other.
Stix isn't perfect in his pursuit of Sparkle. But he's persistent and asks her to marry him, regardless of whether her singing career ever takes off.
Throughout, Sparkle wrestles with the toll pursuing her dream takes on her relationships. The movie insists on one hand that chasing fame can lead to disastrous outcomes. On the other, when a gifted artist has discipline and perseverance, it's suggested, it can result in an opportunity to use those gifts to benefit others and inspire people to live better.
In church we hear hymns and references to Jesus. The jovial reverend says, "The Lord loves a church full of happy, good-looking black folk." When he comes over for dinner, he prays a long prayer of thanksgiving before the meal—so long, in fact, that everyone (except Emma) is snickering about how annoyingly thorough it is.
Emma recognizes a connection between popular music and worldly outcomes. She tells Sparkle that certain music is related to being promiscuous. And when her girls sing Curtis Mayfield's sensual song "Something He Can Feel," she labels it trash and accuses Sparkle of singing words that might influence bad sexual decisions among girls in her audience. (Emma quips that they'll be having illegitimate babies after a song like that.)
Emma longs to see her daughter use her singing and songwriting gifts purely for God's glory. Sparkle suggests that perhaps there's a way to do that in popular music, not just in the church. Her mother rejects the idea totally at first, but eventually comes around to support Sparkle's budding career as a solo artist. As if in tribute to Emma's wishes, then, Sparkle's first solo show at the end of the movie includes spiritually inspired songs that talk in general terms about prayer and heaven and the need for God's help.
That said, when Emma sings in church, things are a lot more specific. After a tragedy, she belts out a rousing version of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow."
Sister labels herself a "heathen."
Her mother labels her a "whore."
Sister believes that her sex appeal, not her singing, is the key to the group's success. In her first performance with her sisters, she tucks her dress straps in, reveals more cleavage and rips a huge slit up her dress.
Her sexy image—and actions onstage—ramp up from there. At a crucial concert, Sister wears a very clingy dress and obviously isn't wearing a bra. She repeatedly caresses her chest, thighs and legs while singing; she rubs the microphone stand suggestively. Men in the audience hoot and holler as if they're at a strip club, while many of the women present express disgust. She also changes clothes on a bus while her sisters hold up coats and a male passenger leers.
Sister and her sisters wear increasingly revealing outfits, showing lots of leg and cleavage as the camera zooms in on their undulating hips, chests and backsides as they sing. One of Sister's outfits includes a see-through strip of fabric from shoulder to hemline down the side of her body, showing that she's not wearing any undergarments. Elsewhere, we see her in sheer shirts wearing a black bra underneath. As for Sparkle, her mother gives her a red dress sporting a plunging neckline that reveals nearly as much cleavage as a skimpy bikini would. Dee is seen wearing a corset in a dressing room.
Twice, Sister and Satin kiss passionately and talk about making love. The second time, Satin tries to tell her he's not interested, but Sister complains (while straddling him in a chair) that she's "horny." Sex obviously plays a big role in their cohabiting relationship.
Sparkle and Stix also kiss. But it seems clear that Sparkle is more sexually restrained—a fact she confirms when she pitches a record exec various subjects she'll sing about, telling him she's still a virgin. Stix eventually proposes to Sparkle, and there's nothing to suggest up to that proposal that they've consummated their relationship.
Couples at a club make out. Mention is made of Emma bearing Sister out of wedlock, and that Sparkle and Dee came from a relationship with a different man.
Two fistfights break out between Levi and Satin, with people pulling the combatants apart both times.
As the film progresses, Sister's bruises indicate Satin is physically abusing her. It starts with a black eye, which she tries to convince her siblings is the result of a fall. (They don't buy it.) More bruises emerge, and it gets more and more difficult for Sister to deny what's happening. Eventually, the camera shows Satin chasing Sister through their house, trying to hit her. When she crumples in the fetal position, he takes off his belt and begins to lash her with it.
[Spoiler Warning] Sparkle and Dee stage an intervention and convince Sister to leave Satin. It's interrupted when he comes home and notices Sister's packed suitcases. Erupting in a rage, Satin hits Sparkle hard in the face, knocking her down. The three sisters then gang up on him, but he fiercely fights them off. Eventually, Dee whacks his head from behind with a fireplace poker … killing him. (We see him fall to the ground.) Sister takes the blame for Dee's action, going to prison for several years after being convicted of manslaughter.
Crude or Profane Language
Two s-words and one use of the abbreviation "BS." God's name is taken in vain eight or more times. Twice it's paired with "d‑‑n." "H‑‑‑" is used half a dozen or so times, while "d‑‑n" and "a‑‑" are uttered three or four times each.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Frequent scenes at nightclubs picture people swigging various alcoholic beverages. Many characters (Sister, Levi, Satin, even Emma in a discouraged moment) are shown smoking.
Sister begins using cocaine when Satin offers it to her (telling her it will enhance their sex life). We see some cocaine on a mirror. Sister drops some on the floor. Once she starts using, Sister looks increasingly doped up. It's clear that she's becoming addicted, and that her dependence upon the drug is destroying her. Sister accuses her mother of having once been passed out and lying in her own vomit after an alcohol and drug binge.
Other Negative Elements
Satin repeatedly mocks the minister and Emma, as well as their spiritual convictions. There's talk of "kissing white women's butts."
Sparkle was supposed to serve as singer/actress Whitney Houston's triumphant comeback vehicle. Instead, by way of her tragic and untimely death from a drug overdose, she has become part of the film's cautionary message. Even as she portrayed a woman onscreen who had beaten her addictive demons and fully surrendered her life to God, Houston was struggling, by all accounts, to do the same thing in real life.
Against that sobering backdrop, Sparkle offers an insightful—if at times raw and sensual—commentary on how fame and glory come packaged in perilous wrapping. A remake of a 1976 film starring Irene Cara (of Fame fame), Sparkle blends wince-inducing moments of intense relational conflict with soaring scenes that testify to the power and beauty of music … and family.
It emphasizes the values of love, faith and perseverance—values that help explain why the Rev. T.D. Jakes' production company helped bring this story to life again. But even as Sparkle brilliantly takes on our culture's pell-mell race toward fame, it's worth noting that some of the sensual, violent and drug-related images it includes are worthy of "taking on" too.