Technically a remake of a 1976 movie starring Philip Michael Thomas (Miami Vice) and Irene Cara (Fame), Sparkle is a rehash of tropes we’ve seen before. Unlike the original version and other films that have told the same story (think Dreamgirls as an example), this one manages a few new wrinkles and is lifted by some (forgive me) sparkling performances.
Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) and her sister – Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and Dee (Tika Sumpter) – sing in the church choir, along with their mother, Emma (Whitney Houston). While she sees sister as a better performer, sparkle has a gift for song writing and dreams of making it in the music business – if only as a backup singer and songwriter. Sister wants to be in the spotlight, while Dee is willing to go along as long as she makes enough money to pay for medical school.
The damper is Emma. She took a shot and didn’t make it. Now she will not allow the girls to follow in her footsteps, going so far as to angrily ask, ‘Is my life not enough of a cautionary tale?’
Of course the girls sneak out and, after making an impression at an open mike night, gain a manager, Stix (Derek Luke) and a suitor for Sister, Levi (Omari Hardwicke). Sister, sadly, is more impressed by the well-dressed, successful comedian Satin (Mike Epps) – a comic whose jokes sell to the white audience but earn the contempt of most blacks. He comes with an albino factotum and a girlfriend who takes off when she sees the way he looks at Sister.
Through persistence and a cheerful demeanor, Stix gets the girls gigs and they eventually open for Aretha (though Sister needs some makeup to cover a nasty shiner – Satin is as mean as he is slick). Along the way, Satin has also gotten sister hooked on drugs which makes things complicated when they might be on the verge of getting a record deal.
Some of the nifty riffs in sparkle come from Emma being the anti-stage mom; Sister taking an unexpected direction after things fall apart, and the quietly emphatic performance of Curtis Armstrong (Moonlighting, The Closer) as a hotshot A&R guy. Mostly, though, Mara Brock Akil’s script follows a well-worn path.
Where the film excels, though, is in performances. Ejogo is positively electric as Sister; Houston is low, righteous thunder as Emma, and Sparks is surprisingly good in her acting debut. As Satin, Epps is both smart and oily; slick and depraved (and considering this is a PG-13 film, that’s an accomplishment). Luke somehow manages to avoid making genuinely nice guy Stix boring with a barely contained energy that makes it easy to see why Sparkle would be interested in him.
There are also the girls’ performances, which are mostly perfect for the Motown era, and moments of real truth – as when the trio get to their first club and see another Supremes-wannabe trio onstage and Sister mutters, ‘We’re a dime a dozen…’ There are also some nice touches that help deflect our attention away from the clichés inherent in the story – like a particular montage in the last act that showcases Sparkle’s determination – and a rousing rendition of Celebrate that shows Houston still had a great set of pipes.
Period authenticity is lacking, though. Outside of a clunky ‘60s color TV, a few appropriate vehicles and clips of Cream, Martin Luther King and Nancy Sinatra, most of the sets could be contemporary – and while the Detroit riots are mentioned, we never get the feeling they’re actually happening. Director Salim Akil does deserve credit, though, for getting performances from his cast that, mostly, transcend the material.
Sparkle may not be the best of all possible final films for Whitney Houston, but she gives a performance that shows her to have been criminally underused in film – it’s hard to believe she only did four movies – and, in fact, none of the cast should be embarrassed to include it on their resumes.
Final Grade: B-
Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures