Swan Song

The Saga of Whitney Houston’s Last Movie, ‘Sparkle’

The diva’s final performance is in the remake of the cult film, which released its first trailer on Tuesday and is set for an August release. Howard Rosenman, who conceived and produced the original film, talks about how the Motown-inspired flick came to the screen in 1976—and Whitney’s ‘wonderful’ performance in the new version. Plus, full coverage of Whitney Houston’s death.

Alicia Gbur – © 2011 Stage 6 Films, Inc.

I was in love with the Motown sound in the ’60s. Berry Gordy was my idol, and Ashford and Simpson were my favorite songwriters. They wrote two of the greatest songs in the R & B lexicon: “You’re All I Need To Get By,” sung by Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” popularized by the ineffable Diana Ross. I am stuck in the R & B world of the late 1960s. Stevie Wonder, Aretha, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Eddie Kendricks, the Temptations, David and Jimmy Ruffin, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, Mary Wells, Martha and the Vandellas, and Gladys Knight and the Pips ... but most especially Diana Ross and the Supremes. The music Gordy created at Hitsville is the greatest cultural export the U.S. has ever produced ... from my point of view.

One hot July morning in 1971, at Fire Island Pines, N.Y., I was introduced to Joel Schumacher. The soundtrack in the background was ’70s Supremes—“Up the Ladder to the Roof,” “Stoned Love,” and “Nathan Jones” playing over and over all afternoon. It turned out Joel and I both wanted to go to Hollywood to make movies. We immediately hit it off because we both were in love with R & B, soul, and the movies.

I said to Joel: “We have to go out to Hollywood and make a movie about these girls who are singing in the background.”

Joel was doing the display windows at Henri Bendel at the time. One Monday night he dressed three mannequins in red dresses. One dress was covered in sequins and paillettes, and a paillette fell on the floor. I picked up the sequin and said: “We’re going to call our movie Sparkle.” I went home and did some research on Gordy, Motown, Diana Ross, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. And I wrote a treatment about the formation of a girl group in 1968 with a very entrepreneurial mogul Svengali-ing one of three sisters and turning her into a supernova.

One night in New York I picked up a guy named Tommy Nutter, a very hip clothes designer from London. I woke up in the morning at the apartment of Peter Brown, who was running RSO, the company owned by Robert Stigwood, manager of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, the Bee Gees, and Eric Clapton. “Howard, tell Peter the story that you told me last night that you want to make into a movie.” So I told Peter the story. He loved it and decided to option the story from Joel and me for $5,000. We then got the writer of the Academy Award–nominated screenplay for Sounder, Lonnie Elder, to write a draft.

Elder’s draft came in, and it wasn’t any good. By then I was out in California making movies for Barry Diller and Michael Eisner at their Movie of the Week factory at ABC. I said to Joel: “The Lonnie Elder screenplay doesn’t work. Unless you write the screenplay on spec, the project will die.” Joel had never written a full-length screenplay before, but went ahead and wrote a 200-page version that became the basis for Sparkle. It was an epic and sweeping story of a black family. I called up John Calley, who was running Warner Bros., and told him about the project, and Joel and I went to meet with him.

Joel had his heart set on directing the movie, and I had mine set on Ashford and Simpson writing the music. But Calley said: “I read Joel’s screenplay. It’s really good. I’ll make the movie under the following four conditions: 1. Cut the movie down to 110 pages. 2. Sam O’Steen has to direct it. 3. Curtis Mayfield has to write the music. 4. We’ll make the movie for $1.2 million. Why don’t you two take a walk around the studio? Come back and tell me your decision.”

O’Steen was the legendary editor of Carnal Knowledge, Rosemary’s Baby, Chinatown, and Catch-22, which Calley had produced. O’Steen had just directed a musical for CBS called Queen of the Stardust Ballroom, which was a great success. Mayfield had written the phenomenally successful soundtracks for Super Fly and Claudine.

Joel and I, in the heat of the noonday sun, walked the entire perimeter of the lot. Joel said to me: “I will cut the movie down to 110 pages. Curtis Mayfield is obviously our Barbra [meaning Mayfield was the reason our movie was going to be made—like Barbra Streisand, then the biggest star in the world]. As far as Sam O’Steen … it’s very painful for me, but in order to get the movie made, I’ll step aside.”

We went back to Calley and told him our decision. We made the movie.

None of the actors we cast had ever been in a movie. Irene Cara brilliantly auditioned, and we fell in love with her for the role of Sparkle. Lonette McKee played Sister, and Dwan Smith was Delores, the third sister who was inspired by the renegade Angela Davis. Philip Michael Thomas played Stix, and Dorian Harewood played Levi. Mary Alice was cast as the mother of the three Williams sisters. Tony King played the villain, Satin, and Armelia McQueen played the best friend of the girls’, Tune Ann. Lester Wilson choreographed the movie, and his assistant was Michael Peters, who went on to choreograph “Beat It” and “Thriller” for Michael Jackson. Bruce Surtees, called “the Prince of Darkness,” photographed the movie. Beautiful though his cinematography was, the movie was too dark, and there were times when you couldn’t even see the characters. It lent an elegaic quality to the film.

Aretha Franklin recorded the Mayfield songs, and Warners released that album—rather than the soundtrack album of the movie—and it was a very big hit. The movie was not, but it became a cult film, especially among African-American girls, because the characters Joel created were real and three-dimensional—regular folk and not just killers, pimps, drug dealers, and addicts.

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Which brings us to the latest chapter in the movie’s journey, involving Whitney Houston, who just died over the weekend in a tragedy that shocked and saddened the world.

Whitney’s company, run by Debra Martin Chase, had a deal at Warner Bros. from 1995 to 2000. Debra procured the rights to Sparkle, and they developed several screenplays, none of which worked. At one point Aaliyah was attached to star, but she was killed in a plane crash in 2001.

Ironically, I no longer had producing rights—I gave them all up when we sold the treatment to RSO Films, which then gave them up to Warner Bros. Luckily I retained, with Joel, “separated rights,” because we both received story credit. That means we can produce a Broadway musical of Sparkle, with some caveats. Michael Lynton, co-chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, eventually got the rights from Warner Bros., and he and Debra Martin Chase very kindly asked Joel and me to become executive producers. Michael astutely brought in Affirm Pictures, a company owned by Bishop T.D. Jakes, who is wildly popular in the black religious community, to produce the picture.

The new director, Salim Akil; his wife, Mara Brock Akil, who wrote the new screenplay; DeVon Franklin, the Sony executive who worked with the Akils; and Debra Martin Chase decided together to set the movie in 1968 in Detroit. The character of the mother of the three girls, played by Houston, was changed from a housekeeper to a former R & B singer who gets fed up with the secular life and turns to the church. When her daughters want to leave the bosom of the church and enter the tough world of R & B, she objects.

This past Friday night, Salim and Mara had a friends-and-family screening of the rough cut. I‘m overjoyed at the work that they have done and the movie they created. Whitney Houston is so very wonderful in the movie. She sings a gospel song brilliantly. Carmen Ejogo as Sister is spectacularly beautiful and an incredible actress, Jordin Sparks fulfills all her American Idol promise. She sings an R. Kelly song and rips your heart apart. Tika Sumpter is a revelation as Delores. Omari Hendricks is so good-looking and such a great actor, and Derek Luke is a fantastic love interest for Sparkle. Mike Epps plays the evil Satin. Mara and Salim changed him from a gangster to a very menacing comedian.

The performances and writing are multidimensional and multilayered. Mara and Salim really mined so much conflict, drama, and love among the main characters. They used the Curtis Mayfield songs, and R. Kelly wrote several new ones. Salim’s use of music is spot on and visceral, and his re-creation of Detroit in 1968 is awe-inspiring. I’m very proud to be associated with this remake. It actually improves greatly on the original.

This film would have been a spectacular comeback for Whitney, who was at the height of her powers during the filming. She was on time, knew all the lines, and professional to the max. Everyone adored her, and she was a real mother hen to all three girls.

I first met Whitney in 1983, when I went to hear her mother, Cissy Houston, sing at a supper club in Manhattan. I went to Sweetwater’s with my friends, the late Academy Award–winning songwriter Paul Jabara and the interior designer Kitty Hawks. That night Whitney performed with her mother, and it was pure magic. It was clear to all of us that Whitney was going to become a huge singing star. She had the most spectacular voice I had ever heard, and she was one of the most beautiful and regal women I had ever met.

I attended Clive Davis’s pre-Grammy party, at which Whitney always performed, with a heavy heart. Clive, as usual, was the consummate pro. “Whitney would have wanted the show to go on,” he said. You could hear in his voice how devastated he felt. He put together an unreal show...every performer dedicated his or her music to Whitney. Tony Bennett, the Kinks with Ray Davis, Diana Krall, Diana Ross, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Pitbull and Neo, Jesse Jay, Wiz Kalifa, Sean Combs, and Miranda Lambert all sang their hearts out for, and to, Whitney.

The most spectacular, haunting, and incredible performance was by Alicia Keys. She told a wonderful story of how Whitney came to visit her in some town, and the two of them got into their pajamas and had a girls’ night. It’s rare that you hear a performance that was so heartfelt, and it cut to the core of my being.