Review: 'Sparkle', starring Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston
The original 1976 Sparkle was memorable basically for only two things: soulful, Motown inspired music, and for being very loosely based on the story of The Supremes. There really isn't much else to like about it, and its status as something of an urban cult classic comes mostly out of nostalgia. So it was a little strange when a remake was planned, basically as a star vehicle for American Idol winner, Jordin Sparks. Clearly, the goal was tp catapult her to stardom much in the same way Jennifer Hudson was in the similar and far superior, Dreamgirls. Or perhaps, fittingly, to show her range as both a singer and leading lady in the way the late Whitney Houston did in The Bodyguard.
Houston, who exec-produced and has the most crowd pleasing performance, shows yet again that she was a unique talent with so much unfulfilled potential. The story is your basic showbiz cautionary tale, full of drugs, sex, betrayal, and ruminations on faith and family. Moved from 1958 Harlem to 1968 Detroit and the heart of the early Motown era, Sparkle(Sparks) is a talented, gifted singer and songwriter too afraid to get up on the stage for herself. Instead she'd rather write songs for her confident and sexy sister, appropriately named Sister(Carmen Ejogo). After Sister, sporting a scandalously short skirt, knocks 'em dead at a local club managed by Stix(Derek Luke), it isn't long before offers start rolling in. Joined by their fiery, aspiring med student sister, Dolores(Tika Sumpter), they form Sister and the Sisters and start their climb to success.
Sparkle hits all the showbiz drama cliches of such a well-worn tale. What matters is the execution, and while this version may lack a little of the original's passion, it's far and away better in just about every other way. Directed by Salim Akil, the film has a glossy and dazzling look, with the rousing musical numbers adding a definite pizzazz the previous movie lacked. Written by Akil's wife, Mara Brock, she doesn't stick to a by-the-numbers retelling, making a few smart changes along the way. The Satin Struthers character, barely noticeable before, is given real depth and presence here. He's probably the most layered character in the movie, a guy who is willing to sell out his own race in front of white people, until he finds out his jokes aren't so funny when told in front of blacks. Between this and his surprising turn in last year's Jumping the Broom, Epps is slowly establishing himself as an actor capable of tackling complex roles.
Sparks does a solid enough job as Sparkle, but she doesn't have the natural screen presence to own the role. Instead we see her overshadowed by Whitney Houston's powerful final performance, which sees her often delivering haunting, resonant lines that are almost like a foreshadowing of her real life troubles. Ejogo and Sumpter also steal much of the limelight away from Sparks, and in the case of the former it has nothing to do with having the flashier role. She dominates the screen and has that larger than life aura you need to be a star, and when given the chance to portray Sister's downward spiral, Ejogo absolutely nails it. The central love story between Stix and Sparkle never quite comes together in the way it needs to, which is a drag because it's so important in defining who Sparkle is.
Many will come to see Sparkle based solely on it being their last chance to see Whitney Houston on the big screen. She never had enough of an opportunity to show what she really could be as an actress, which makes it so heartbreaking to see her do so well in what would be her swansong. Her fans will be happy to discover that Houston gives an epic final bow worthy of being looked upon with pride.