On a recent evening, Tandreka Keaton scans the room at Cliff Bell’s while having drinks and hors d’oeuvres at the downtown Detroit jazz club.
But this is no ordinary night at the club. Neo Soul crooner Goapole has just finished singing a moving number on stage, and now American Idol Season Six winner Jordin Sparks belts outs a song with Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter.
Cliff Bell’s has been transformed into a movie set for the Detroit makeover of the 1976 classic film, “Sparkle.” As an extra, Keaton has a front-row seat on all the action months before an updated version of the film, set in 1968 Detroit, is released this summer.
Extras aren’t told what to expect when they go on set, so Keaton was shocked to see Bishop T.D. Jakes walking around, the famous choreographer Fatima taking to the dance floor and comedian Mike Epps, and actors Derek Luke (“Antoine Fisher”, “Notorious”) and Omari Hardwick (“The Game”) chatting it up.
“I didn’t expect to recognize all those people,” says Keaton, 35, of Lansing. “Detroiters are really going to like this movie, and they are going to see Detroit in a positive way. It’s going to be very exciting.”
The film was equally exciting for Rondregus Underwood, 26, of Bloomfield Hills, who also found himself as a featured extra in multiple roles in the movie. In one scene, he’s a doorman and Epps throws him his coat. In another, he’s a bartender in a hole-in-the-wall bar scene at the Masonic Temple.
He got to chat with Luke and Sparks. He and extra Elijah Conner, 26, of Grosse Pointe, shared laughs with Epps, who they describe as funny all day long.
For months now, Detroiters already have been buzzing about “Sparkle,” the story inspired by the Supremes, getting a Motor City makeover. In the original movie, the sisters go from singing in a church choir in Harlem in the late 1950s to stardom.
The 2011 version fast forwards to the late 60’s when Motown was becoming all the rage, and is filmed in familiar Detroit places such as Baker’s Keyboard Lounge, the Masonic Temple and Central United Methodist Church.
Besides that, it seemed everybody knew somebody in the movie because more than 3,000 predominately African-American extras were used in the film, a record number of Black actors in any movie previously filmed in Michigan.
In the new film, Sparks stars as Sparkle, the title character, who works on becoming a star while overcoming her demons. Sumpter and Ejogo play her sisters. The late Whitney Houston, in her last role after a 15-year absence from the silver screen, stars as the trio’s mother.
Luke plays the character, Stix, an up and coming Motown music manager who discovers the sisters and eventually becomes Sparkle’s love interest.
Hardwick stars as Stix’s cousin, Levi, who falls in love with Ejogo’s character but takes a downward spiral into crime when she’s wooed away from him by Detroit comedian Satin Struthers, the character Epps plays. Singer Cee-Lo Green plays a singer who does the sisters’ opening act.
The movie sounds so enticing, but until recently the original “Sparkle” had been largely under the radar in Black households. After its theatrical run in the 1970s, only sporadic television airings kept the film in the back of people’s minds.
“Sparkle” didn’t see a VHS release until 1994, and only became available on DVD in 2007. Its soul-stirring, Curtis Mayfield-produced soundtrack sung by Aretha Franklin, with hits like “Something He Can Feel” and “Look Into Your Heart,” arguably surpassed the film in terms of recognition.
“Sparkle” wasn’t exactly a lost film, but it was overshadowed by bigger hits from that era.
Still, the film’s plot would be repeated in several productions over the years. It follows the story of Sister and the Sisters, a trio of Harlem sisters seeking fame in the 1950s, when the foundation of doo-wop, girl-group sounds was being laid.
Drugs, racism and violence provide stumbling blocks to success, and not everyone lives to reap the benefits. We’d see similar plots in fictional tales like “Dreamgirls” and “The Five Heartbeats,” while real-life struggles of Black musicians told in scripts like “Ray” also would be presented on screen and stage.
“Sparkle” wasn’t the first Black musical; Motown’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” released just four years earlier, was bigger and earned Diana Ross an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. But there was something different about this film that set it apart from others, says Lonette McKee, who played Sister in the original.
“It was my first feature film,” the native Detroiter says. “We were all very young, and it was a very exciting process. It was a high.
“The original script was written by Joel Schumacher. I don't think I ever asked Joel if he based his writing on any real-life girl groups that existed. Certainly similarities can be drawn, and you can assume that the writer was inspired by some of those. I found it quite original, actually.”
The film helped launch the career of McKee, who went on to star in “The Cotton Club” and “Jungle Fever,” Philip Michael Thomas, who co-starred in “Miami Vice” and Irene Cara, who went on to star in “Fame.” Schumacher would go on to direct two films in the “Batman” franchise.
Rumors of a “Sparkle” remake began circulating in the 1990s with Aaliyah, another native Detroiter, tapped to play one of the girls. Debra Martin Chase, one of Hollywood’s top Black female producers, brought forth the idea and finally saw it come to fruition last year.
“I've had this idea for 11 years and it's gone through various incarnations,” she says. “A couple of years ago, I was having dinner with the chairman of Sony. And he said, ‘I love ‘Sparkle.’ I would make that movie.’ It takes the right person to be supportive and here we are.”
Sony Pictures reaped some box-office success with director-producer team Salim and Mara Brock Akil’s movie, “Jumping the Broom.” Martin Chase brought aboard Houston; the pair co-produced “The Princess Diaries,” and Houston was looking to re-enter the film business. The only missing piece of the puzzle was a plot and setting.
“When I approached the remake with Salim and Mara and we talked about where we wanted to be set, Detroit was one of the first places we talked about,” Martin Chase said.
“We wanted to move it into the ‘60s, thinking about what was going on during that time period. Detroit and Motown were at the forefront of music in America, and certainly Black music. It made sense from a creative standpoint, and at that time you had a very strong tax incentive for filming.”
Sparks was tapped to play the ingénue Sparkle, while British actress Ejogo would assume the place of Sister. The third sister, Delores, was soft-spoken in the original film, but Sumpter, who played in BET’s sitcom, “The Game,” is given a larger role for the character.
The mother in “Sparkle” was a downtrodden maid, but in the remake, Houston, is a soul-turned-gospel singer who disapproves of her daughters singing the Motown sound.
Extra Shavannahre Brazier witnessed Houston having a moving moment after she visited someone in jail. “She was crying a little bit, and she asked everybody–the cast, crew and extras–to join hands and she prayed over us,” says Brazier, 25, of Detroit. “She was so nice; I felt like part of her family. When you pray with somebody, it feels like love.”
The original “Sparkle” was filmed completely in Los Angeles despite its New York backdrop. For the remake, Martin Chase and company approached the Michigan Film Office and the Detroit Film Office to scout the best Detroit locations. Houston and the girls’ “home” was in a private Indian Village residence, and other scenes were shot at the Fillmore Theatre and aforementioned locations.
“We loved being in Detroit,” Martin Chase says. “Myself, Salim, the entire cast, we had a really good time. All the sporting teams were doing very well, but just in general the city has had hard times but it's on its way back.”
Watch this video for a behind the scenes look at our cover shoot and interviews with actors involved in the production of "Sparkle."