In an age where artists find it increasingly difficult to remain relevant for more than a year, the legacy of The Supremes is still alive over fifty years later. Their story of pioneering success — where three girls out of Detroit become international singing sensations as well as beauty and style icons — has a dark side full of wrecked friendships, heavy-handed manipulations, affairs, alcoholism and death.
The original Sparkle, released in 1976, took some cues from the real-life saga of The Supremes, even though its girl group were sisters in Harlem, while the hit Broadway play, Dreamgirls, went all the way there, drawing greater parallels to the rumors that privately circled The Supremes’ story.
By taking place in the late 1960s after Motown has made its biggest splash, the Sparkle remake in theaters heavily banks on Detroit and that Motown legacy. It, however, only flirts with the dark side of the industry, opting to stay on the inspirational side of the music mountain. And, while The Supremes are not always mentioned, it is obvious that their success is the blueprint.
Like the original Sparkle, the group is comprised of three blood sisters. Although being close siblings shuts down the petty jealousies that may exist between women who are not blood, the music industry is ripe with other drama. Sister, the older sister and loose cannon played impressively by Carmen Ejogo, who might be remembered for her breakthrough role in the U.S. as Sally Hemmings, is itching for the high life so desperately that she turns down a good man to roll with the flashy Satin, a cooning comedian played by Mike Epps in this version, instead of the ruthless gangster in the original.
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Jordin Sparks’ Sparkle is the innocent so in awe of Sister that she is afraid to own up to her desire to be in the music spotlight. A gifted songwriter as well, Sparkle even crafts songs for Sister, who has a smoldering sensuality, to sing. Their other sister Dolores, played by Tika Sumpter, known to most as Malik’s girlfriend on The Game, is just biding her time until she can get to medical school. Derek Luke plays Stix, their manager, who openly admires Gordy, and has a thing for Sparkle.
The late great Whitney Houston shines as the girls’ disapproving mother, Emma. A former singer whose daughters were conceived with musicians who abandoned her, Emma has turned to the church and forbids her daughters from pursuing music careers. Her home is one where television time is heavily regulated and church and bible study attendance are mandates for living under her roof. To make their dreams of music stardom a reality, Sister and Sparkle frequently sneak out of the house. Because Detroit is on fire with music, finding spots to play are no problem. The girls even have dreams of opening for Aretha Franklin.
Still, it is The Supremes who serve as the greatest backdrop for Sparkle. The lavish eyelashes and hip costuming attest to that. For black audiences especially, The Supremes have a story that continues to resonate, even if it is far more salacious than the PG-13 Sparkle, and has more layers than any one movie could convey. Perhaps it’s because The Supremes represent the black female version of the popular American narrative of coming from nothing to something.
The Supremes’ origins date back to 1958 when Florence Ballard, then in junior high, became friendly with singers Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, who would later become famous as The Temptations. Williams and Kendricks were members of The Primes and their manager, Milton Jenkins, wanted to add a sister group, The Primettes.