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Film "Sparkle" recalls a time when Detroit shined

DETROIT (Reuters) - A two-story house on West Grand Boulevard was once a music-makers' paradise, but is now a monument - a museum, really - to a colorful city that, behind new movie "Sparkle", is recalling its past with renewed pride.
/ Source: Reuters

DETROIT (Reuters) - A two-story house on West Grand Boulevard was once a music-makers' paradise, but is now a monument - a museum, really - to a colorful city that, behind new movie "Sparkle", is recalling its past with renewed pride.

The home of Motown Records, which became known as Hitsville USA during the record label's 1960s heyday, looked like many others on its block. But behind its walls, business was anything but usual, and "Sparkle" seems to have captured the magic of the times, city residents told Reuters in recent interviews.

Young men and women, some barely out of their teens, wrote and recorded songs that were the driving force in building the multimillion-dollar label that launched the careers of Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and The Supremes, among many others, giving Detroit an identity around the globe.

Last weekend's release of updated 1976 musical drama "Sparkle" brought a wave of nostalgia to die-hard fans of the Motown Sound and Detroiters excited to see their city reflected positively on screen after years of struggle, including an auto industry that had fallen on tough times.

The movie features characters who hark back to a special era, plus cultural landmarks such as Baker's Keyboard Lounge and Cliff Bell's nightclub, which are still in operation today.

Life-long Detroiter Blanche Ussery, who saw "Sparkle" with her family, noted a few omissions and minor inaccuracies, but said the story mostly captured the spirit of the city.

"I thought it was pretty much reminiscent of the times," Ussery said.

Strikingly accurate, she said, was the courtship between "Sparkle" co-stars Jordin Sparks and Derek Luke, which brought to mind a simpler time in Detroit. Luke's character pursued Sparks' protagonist at church, much like Ussery's husband sought her at People's Community parish, where they eventually married.

Cameo appearances in the film like that of Universal Motown recording artist and Detroit resident Kem, whose soulful love songs often pay homage to original Motown talents, also gave the movie an air of familiarity.


Joe Spencer, a restaurateur and retired Detroit TV executive who earned writing credits on albums by Edwin Starr, singer of 1970 hit "War", and girl group The Marvelettes, who scored with "Please Mr. Postman", recalled the mood at Hitsville in its heyday. It was not unusual to find Diana Ross rehearsing in one area while singer William "Smokey" Robinson listened to unreleased songs down the hall.

"Here you were in the same place with some of the world's greatest songwriters and hitmakers, and they were everyday people, too," Spencer said.

Dorothy Simpson, who opened Simpson's Record Shop in 1966, said she largely owes the success of her still-operating store to Motown. Teenagers who pined for the latest single by The Temptations, Marvin Gaye or Martha & The Vandellas regularly filed into line in front of Simpson's cash register.

"We had them just about every day," Simpson says of the young customers. "That's what got us started, Motown."

Motown Museum CEO Allen Rawls, who auditioned for the label as a teen, said the company's legacy still shines decades after Detroit itself began an economic decline. The city's population - now just over 700,000 - is about half what it was in 1970.

Brazelton's Florist and James H. Cole Funeral Home are among the Motown Museum's few neighbors still serving a community that survived a deadly 1967 urban rebellion, a drug epidemic, and years of joblessness.

It's a tribute to the music - and to Detroit - that people who speak little English tour Motown, and "if a song comes on, they know every word", said Rawls.

The label eventually became property of Universal Music after founder Berry Gordy sold the company in 1972, having already moved the headquarters to Los Angeles.

"When they left, I think it created a big hole in Detroit's soul - and not just the music," Spencer said, noting the "social pride" the city felt as a breeding ground for music stars.

Michelle McKinney, an archives staffer at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, said Motown also was a soundtrack for the real lives of fans like her. She was almost an adult when she discovered the songs that her mother had banned from their home, calling them "sinful".

"The music helped me recognize what love was, so I really owe Motown a debt of gratitude," McKinney said.

Motown also helped Detroiters become socially conscious, and some of the museum's exhibits link song lyrics to struggles for civil rights being waged throughout America in the 1960s.

"It made us a community," said McKinney. "We had our own movie stars and singing stars. We had some people to be proud of, from Detroit. They were our royalty."

(Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Dale Hudson)