Sparkle revives classic music of Curtis Mayfield

I know I am a little behind with the Sparkle criticism, (the film debuted on August 17th), but considering the massive role the soundtrack played in classic soul music history, I figured the old saying “better late than never” would have to come into play in this instance. Before I jump into the musical side of this discussion, I figured I would give a brief background about my personal experience with the classic film. I saw the film back in high school after my mom’s constant raving about it and insistence of its inspirational message. Considering my lack of knowledge about music at the time, I didn’t grasp on to the musical significance of the film until much later.

Yet, I still thought the performances were superb and I will never forget Irene Cara’s final performance where she rocks a beautiful red dress and sings her heart out as her boyfield Stix and her mother look on in amazement.

Looking back, I’m really glad that I had the opportunity to see the original before seeing the remake. Of course, there were many comparisons to be made, and I caught some slack after insisting that the original was better.

However, when it came to the remake of the soundtrack, I was more pleased.  The diverse song selections, modern take on soul classics, and incorporation of music from the original film make for a nice tribute to the man behind the music: Mr. Curtis Mayfield.

As one of the most talented songwriters/musicians of the 1960-70s, Mayfield created timeless records that oozed soulful melodies and  “feel good” harmonies.  Mayfield also composed the score for many popular 1970s  flicks such as SuperflyClaudine, and Lets Do It Again. His music for Sparkle, which was recorded by soul diva Aretha Franklin revived Franklin’s musical career with singles such as “Something He Can Feel” which debuted at #1 on the R&B Billboard charts.

We all may be more familiar with Mayfield’s socially conscience music with his group, The Impressions, but in addition to belting out messages of hope and freedom, he also had a knack for writing glossy,R&B tracks mixed with classical instrumentation.

One of my favorite tracks, “Look Into Your Heart” is a soft ballad that urges one to hang on to love in spite of the challenges it may bring. Behind soft strings,  Aretha echoes a hefty sum of soul and stretches her octave range to the max. Jordin Sparks covers the  song and while her vocal range is impressive, the simple piano accompaniment kind of ruined the symphonic approach that Mayfield orchestrated so wonderfully in the original.

R.Kelly stepped into the role of Mayfield, or at least tried to, and composed three of the tracks, including a beautiful gospel infused song, “One Wing” which Sparks knocks out of the park vocally.

While Aretha was the voice of reason on the original soundtrack, Whitney Houston is obviously the crystal star shining through on the updated version. Her version of “His  Eye Is On The Sparrow”  took Houston back to her gospel roots and was a testimony to the trials and tribulations she endured. Houston also shines on the song “Celebrate” which features Sparks. Yet, although it was nice to hear Houston singing a pop tune with Sparks, the soundtrack would have not have suffered had it been left out. The song simply didn’t fit into the soulful mode of the album, and seemed like it would have been better suited on a disco album or Dreamgirls soundtrack.

But, where “Celebrate” drops the ball, there is plenty of modern day Motown-soul floating throughout the rest of the album, especially with the addition of Cee Lo Green, whose fiery Sam and Dave-esque tune “I’m a Man” generates much excitement both on the soundtrack and in the film.

While listening to the soundtrack, I couldn’t help but think about Mayfield and I wondered what he would have thought about the new voices and music from R. Kelly. My guess is, he would have been pleased with the results. But, if his opinion was anything like mine, then he would have liked to have heard at least one tune from Aretha, or even a duet with her and Whitney. Now that would have made my day.

Curtis Mayfield (1942-1999)



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