Sparks finds new light in ‘Sparkle’ remake

August 17, 2012 in Entertainment, National Entertainment, News, This Week

Remake of 70s classic opens today

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. (AP) – When most singers make the leap from recording artist to movie star, it’s usually a well-calculated career maneuver that requires show-business acumen from an army of agents, acting coaches, managers and publicists. However, for bubbly sixth season “American Idol” champion Jordin Sparks, the jump from stage to screen just, well, kinda happened.

The way Sparks tells the story of how she became the title character in a remake of the 1976 musical “Sparkle” is that her music career was unexpectedly in flux last year while she was parting ways with her management and her label was undergoing a shake-up. Unable to record a new album and uncertain of her future, Sparks looked to another passion – acting.

“I was in this weird limbo and ‘Sparkle’ just fell into my lap,” Sparks says. “My agent sent it to me and said, `What do you think? Do you wanna audition?’ I read the script and fell in love with it. I related a lot to Sparkle. She’s a girl with a dream, and she’s gonna do whatever it takes to get to the top. I know something about a girl who that did that as well.”

“Sparkle,” which opens Friday, Aug. 17, tells the story of a Detroit singing sibling group attempting to break into the music industry in 1968.

Dorian Harewood (left) and Philip Michael Thomas (right) starred in the 1976 classic film, "Sparkle," the story of three sisters' (Lonette McKee, Irene Cara and Dwan Smith) rise to fame.

The original “Sparkle,” which is now a cult classic, debuted in 1976 and starred Irene Cara, Philip Michael Thomas, Lonette McKee, Dorian Harewood and Mary Alice.

The film was released by Warner Bros. and the soundtrack was produced by Curtis Mayfield and featured Aretha Franklin singing all of the film’s tracks.

Landing the title role of “Sparkle” catapulted a 17-year-old Irene Cara into superstardom as a singer and an actress.

She went on to star in “Fame,“ in 1980 and sing the award-winning title track. In 1983, she penned the Oscar winning “Flashdance, What A Feeling,” for the film about a charismatic dancer who worked as a welder by day.

Cara is now writing and producing for her musical group, Hot Caramel.

Lonette McKee went on to other TV and film appearances, including playing Denzel Washington’s onscreen mother in “Malcolm X.“

A year after “Sparkle,“ Cara and Dorian Harewood teamed up again and portrayed Alex Haley’s parents, Simon and Bertha, in “Roots: The Next Generations.” Harewood later appeared in numerous television shows and films.

Irene Cara as Sparkle Williams and Philip Michael Thomas as Stix Warren in the 1976 film, "Sparkle."

Philip Michael Thomas launched a singing career and become famous as Ricardo Tubbs on the popular TV show, “Miami Vice.”

Sparks said she first auditioned for the part last July, scored the role in August and started rehearsing in September. She didn’t have a chance to work with an acting coach, but she nervously memorized the entire script, including the parts of Sparkle’s older sisters, played by Carmen Ejogo (”Love’s Labour’s Lost”) and Tika Sumpter (”One Life to Live”).

As if starring in her first feature film wasn’t nerve-racking enough, she learned that Whitney Houston, who had been working for 12 years with producer Debra Martin Chase to remake “Sparkle,” would be playing her strict churchgoing mother, Emma, who turned her life around after battling her own demons.

Houston died Feb. 11 after accidentally drowning in a hotel room bathtub on the eve of the Grammy Awards; authorities said her death was complicated by cocaine use and heart disease. With Houston gone, “Sparkle” has become more than a potential breakout moment for Sparks. It’s serving as a tribute to the superstar.

One of the toughest scenes for Sparks to film involved Houston’s character confronting her daughters after discovering that they have formed a group against her wishes. Sparks remembers that it was filmed late at night, and she was surprised that Houston was so effortlessly able to switch between yelling in character and joking around on set.

“That was the scene where she says, `Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?’ I remember standing there and her saying that and going, `Whoa. That’s crazy.’ Watching the movie now with her not here, it holds even more weight,” Sparks says, pausing to rub some goose bumps that have emerged on her arm. “I just got chills thinking about it.”

Sparks learned Houston died just before they were due to walk the red carpet at Clive Davis’ pre-Grammys party.

“It was going to be our first round of interviews to talk about `Sparkle,”’ Sparks says. “Now, all of the things that she was going to do have fallen on my shoulders and the rest of the cast. I can feel it. My shoulders are a little tense, but at the same time, I feel like it’s just a blessing. I’m really lucky. I get to talk about Whitney Houston.”

Sparks is already working on her next movie, an independent film called “The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete” directed by George Tillman Jr. She’s also playing “an Afro-Latina from the Bronx” alongside Anthony Mackie and Oscar-winning “Idol” alum Jennifer Hudson. But Sparks, a Grammy nominee whose hits include “No Air,” is not finished with her music career.

“I am growing and learning,” Sparks says. “There’s so much more that I want to accomplish and do. I’m gonna do it at whatever pace it happens. I’m not trying to rush anything or slow anything down.”