Music Makes the Film World Go 'Round
As film audiences look forward to a Whitney Houston and Jordin Sparks-led remake of 1976's Sparkle hitting theaters on Aug. 17, we've taken the opportunity to look back at some of the other memorable black movie musicals. (We decided not to include straightforward biopics like Ray or Bird.) From the glitzy big numbers performed by black Hollywood icons like Lena Horne to hip-hop club anthems rapped by Run-DMC and Outkast, there's a long and varied tradition that makes you wonder why there aren't more black musicals made every year.
This legendary 1943 release is a veritable showcase of the era's premier African-American stars like Lena Horne, Cab Calloway, Fats Waller and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Based on Robinson's life, this opulent production features a whopping 20 musical numbers in less than 80 minutes of running time. The best bits include Waller performing "Ain't Misbehavin' " and Calloway leading his big band through "Jumpin' Jive," which also features the spritely Nicholas Brothers in a dance routine that Fred Astaire reportedly said was the greatest performance he'd ever seen.
Cabin in the Sky
The other seminal African-American movie musical of 1943 alongside Stormy Weather (both featuring Lena Horne) was this adaptation of a Broadway play. Ethel Waters stars, and her performance of "Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe" in the movie earned the tune an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. Starring Eddie "Rochester" Anderson of The Jack Benny Program as Little Joe, the glamorous film tells the tale of Joe being killed over a gambling debt, and the extremes his soul goes through to reach heaven.
This opera-based production from 1954 stars Dorothy Dandridge (in the title role) and Harry Belafonte as star-crossed lovers during World War II, with Dandridge falling into a real-life affair with the movie's director Otto Preminger in the process. Both stars had their voices dubbed by singers Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson for the difficult operatic score. Dandridge would go on to become the first African American nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award, but would lose to Grace Kelly in The Country Girl.
Porgy and Bess
This highly controversial 1959 release had to travel a hard road to the big screen because of its grisly content, loaded with drugs, murder and rape. But by the time the adaptation of the 1935 Gershwin opera was made into a film, it came stocked with black Hollywood legends Sidney Poitier (whose singing voice was dubbed by pop singer Bobby McFerrin's dad, Robert), Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr., Diahann Carroll and Pearl Bailey. The movie, nominated for numerous Academy Awards, took home the Oscar for Best Scoring of a Musical Picture.
Released in 1976, this movie about the Williams sisters' ill-fated journey toward musical stardom starred Philip Michael Thomas, Lonette McKee and Irene Cara, but for many the true star of the original Sparkle was the soundtrack. (It included classics like the slinky anthem "Something He Can Feel.") Written and produced by Curtis Mayfield and sung by Aretha Franklin, the emotional, soulful score perfectly supports the gritty tale of success in the face of drug addiction and tragedy. The film finally saw DVD release in 2007 after years of being out of print.
This notorious 1978 release might be gloomy and kind of bizarre, but it remains a fiercely beloved favorite across generations of African Americans. While many considered Diana Ross too old for the role of Dorothy and the movie went on to be a box-office flop, few will argue that it was a breakout moment for Michael Jackson, who owned his portrayal of the Scarecrow. MJ's performance of "Ease on Down the Road" remains relentlessly funky.
This 1980 release, directed by Alan Parker about the hard-earned life, times and nonstop drama at New York's High School of Performing Arts, was a cultural flashpoint with the resonance to grow into a brand, boasting everything from TV spinoffs, reality shows and a 2009 remake. The bombastic title track sung by Irene Cara went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song.
This 1984 high-energy portrayal of Prince (as "The Kid"), dealing with everything from an abusive, alcoholic father to harassment from Morris Day and the Time on Prince's road to musical stardom, rules on the strength of jaw-dropping live performances. Prince became a megastar on the enduring power of songs like the title track, the up-tempo "I Will Die 4 U" and "When Doves Cry," earning him the Academy Award for Best Music, Original Song Score. The soundtrack has sold more than 13 million copies in America alone.
Loosely based on Russell Simmons and the early days of Def Jam Records, this celebration of the glossy side of hip-hop and R&B circa 1985 features Run-DMC, the Fat Boys, Kurtis Blow, the Beastie Boys, New Edition and Sheila E in big production performances. The film is loaded with musical cameos from Debbie Harry, Donnie Simpson, LL Cool J, Simmons and more. The soundtrack boasts hits like Force MD's eternal slow jam, "Tender Love."
Spike Lee dove headfirst into the world of sorority and fraternity life on black college campuses with this 1988 release. The movie stars the actors at the heart of The Cosby Show's TV spinoff, A Different World (Kadeem Hardison, Jasmine Guy and Darryl M. Bell), alongside Lee regulars Giancarlo Esposito and Ossie Davis. The musical highlight remains E.U.'s spirited performance of "Da Butt," which introduced D.C.'s funky "go-go" sound to the world. The stellar soundtrack features the late Phyllis Hyman's brilliant turn on the song "Be One."
The Five Heartbeats
This earnest 1991 Robert Townsend production portrays the dramatic career trajectory of a fictitious vocal group from inception to fame and fortune, and the subsequent drug- and alcohol-fueled breakup of the original lineup. Based on real groups like the Temptations and Four Tops, the beloved movie stars Michael Right, Leon and Townsend as the band members, with lead singer of the Dells Marvin Junior providing most of the lead vocals. The soundtrack also features turns from Patti LaBelle, Andraé Crouch and After 7.
Sister Act, Sister Act 2
In 1992, Whoopi Goldberg playing a lounge singer hiding out from the mob disguised as a nun equaled comedy gold. Sister Act was also the opportunity to showcase high-octane gospel performances, like "Hail Holy Queen" and "My Girl," rewritten as "My God." It was such a smash that Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit wasn't far behind in December of 1993, featuring a young and luminous Lauryn Hill, pre-Fugees, and Aretha Franklin's hit "Deeper Love."
The Fighting Temptations
The gospel-powered release from 2003 boasts an ensemble cast featuring Cuba Gooding Jr., Beyoncé, Mike Epps and Faith Evans. The plot of this romantic comedy is based around Gooding's character fulfilling his late mother's request to lead his childhood church's choir to victory in a singing competition, and features cameos from gospel stars Mary Mary, Yolanda Adams, Donnie McClurkin and Shirley Caesar. Beyoncé's star turn comes with a sultry performance of the song "Fever."
Famously based on the real-life story of Motown girl-group superstars, this big-budget 2006 release, starring a resurgent Eddie Murphy and Jamie Foxx, was poised to be a breakout role for Beyoncé. But it was American Idol runner-up Jennifer Hudson who stole the show, taking home the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress out of a slew of nominations for the film, including Best Supporting Actor for Murphy. Dreamgirls was also the first live-action film to earn three separate nominations for Best Song.
Still riding high on the massive crossover success of the Speakerboxx/The Love Below album, Outkast took an unexpected turn with this period piece set in 1930s Georgia. Starring Terrence Howard and Paula Patton next to legends Cicely Tyson and Ben Vereen, the movie features a host of songs from Speakerboxx/The Love Below. The renowned Hinton Battles, who was the first actor to portray the Scarecrow in the stage version of The Wiz, choreographed the film's elaborate dance sequences.