After Bill Condon’s “Dreamgirls” (2006), one might well question whether a remake of “Sparkle,” Sam O’Steen’s 1976 musical about the rise of a singing group modeled after The Supremes, was really necessary. But any lingering doubts will probably be silenced by the fact that Salim Akil’s new version offered the late Whitney Houston—whose pet project this was—her final film role.
Houston plays, with ferocity bordering on the positively unhinged, Emma, the Bible-thumping mother who rigidly controls her three daughters to keep them from making the sorts of mistakes she did in her younger days. (Given the circumstances of Houston’s death, viewers may get a queasy feeling when she delivers the line, “Hasn’t my life been enough of a cautionary tale for you?”) But it’s Detroit in the sixties (a change from the original’s fifties Harlem), and the girls—rebellious, sexy Sister (Carmen Ejogo), brainy, socially-conscious Dolores (Tika Sumpter) and mousy, song-writing Sparkle (Jordin Sparks)—sneak out of the house to perform in the local soul bars, with Sister the seductive lead vocalist and the others her back-up.
It takes little time for the trio to catch the eye of Stix (Derek Luke), a young fellow who’s come to Detroit to get into the music business. He and his cousin Levi (Omari Hardwick) worm their way into Emma’s house for a Sunday Bible lesson, and Stix approaches Sparkle and promises to secure a gig for them. The other sisters agree, and before long they’ve become a hit. Two of them have also found romance, Sparkle with Stix and Sister with Levi. But Sister soon catches the eye of Satin Sutherland (Mike Epps), a successful stand-up comic, and much to Emma’s disgust they get married. And despite his silky exterior, Satin proves a volatile wife-beater, and his insecurity and innate cruelty ruin the group’s chance to sign a lucrative deal with a big record label. The situation also leads to domestic violence and tragedy.
But the movie won’t close on such a downbeat note. Despite her mother’s opposition, Sparkle decides to try out for a music career on her own. And loyal Stix promptly puts together a one-woman concert, complete with orchestra and chorus, that exhibits her awesome talent to a salivating record executive (Curtis Armstrong). Of course, Emma abruptly sets aside her misgivings and becomes her greatest supporter.
The major thing that this new “Sparkle” does right is the music. Especially in the first third of the picture, there’s a lot of it, and “consultant” R. Kelly does an excellent job both with established songs and new ones, even if the result doesn’t always sound exactly like the sixties. The musical set-pieces choreographed by Fatima Robinson are as vibrant as any Vegas floor show, and they’re well captured by cinematographer Anasta Michos. The one exception, oddly enough, is Houston’s big solo, a rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” that comes out of right field—there’s literally no dramatic context for it—and reveals the singer’s vocal deterioration as well as her remaining power.
And all the stuff between the musical numbers—and there’s a lot of it—is ludicrously melodramatic. The mother-daughters material comes across like a retread of “The Jazz Singer” transposed to the African-American milieu. Sparkle’s last-act triumph is absurd on every level—Mara Brock Akil’s script even employs the hoary montage of a person patiently sitting outside an office for days until the individual inside finally agrees to see them. Even the Sister-Satin subplot, which has a strong hint of “A Star Is Born” to it, is rescued from banality only by the remarkable performance of Epps, who manages to strike a perfect balance between smooth attractiveness and sheer menace. He also provides the film’s sharpest humor, particularly in a dinner-table scene in which he crosses swords with Emma’s pastor (Michael Beach).
Otherwise the acting too often falls into soap-operatic shrillness, as with Houston and Ejogo, or the merely pallid, as with Sparks, who despite their common source of celebrity, proves herself no Jennifer Hudson. And Akil doesn’t have the dexterity to paper over the clumsiness of the screenplay’s many poor transitions.
“Sparkle” is basically a musical sudser that would have seemed hokey even in the 1940s. But the music is often exhilarating, and of course Houston’s posthumous appearance carries a fascination all its own, even if it’s a rather morbid one.