Sparkle will be remembered as the final on-screen appearance for the legendary singing superstar Whitney Houston, who died tragically in February 2012. Sparkle will be remembered as the feature film debut of Jordin Sparks, who, in 2007 at age 17, became the Season 6 winner of “American Idol” and is attempting to parlay that victory from a successful pop music career into a successful acting career as well. Sparkle will also be remembered as Houston’s long-standing cinematic pet project. An avid fan of the 1976 original, she acquired the rights to a remake in the mid-1990s and sought R&B singer Aaliyah as the lead. When Aaliyah tragically died in a plane crash in August 2001, Sparkle sat in turnaround until Houston partnered with Salim Akil and Maya Brock Akil, the husband-and-wife creative team behind 2011’s Jumping The Broom.
And while the original version of this story, the 1976 Irene Cara-led film, may have inspired Whitney Houston to become a singer (wait…really?), this rendition of the story is an unmitigated disaster featuring a doe-eyed lead actress, well in over her head, and a story that does not just embrace its soapy melodramatic flourishes as much as it procreates with them.
Curiously, Sparkle is not really about the character Sparkle (Sparks)…at least for awhile. Rather, it focuses on three sisters, Sparkle, Dolores (Tika Sumpster), and Sister (Carmen Ejogo, who dominates two-thirds of the film) who form an all-girl singing group in 1968 Detroit. Their mother, Emma (Houston), had a glimpse of stardom but for reasons both self-induced and out of her control, never found the spotlight. Sister, the oldest child (I don’t understand the name either…), is charismatic and possesses a jaw-dropping singing voice. Dolores, or “Dee”, can sing as well, but has applied to medical school to become a doctor. Sparkle is quietly in the background, fresh out of high school, and serves as the prototypically introspective and innocent little lamb who writes songs like “(Giving Him) Something He Can Feel” in her journal, which she hides away from everyone.
Except Sister. She knows about Sparkle’s writing and Sparkle has Sister’s ear, convincing her to perform her songs at local open mic nights. As is always the case in movies like this, a fledgling manager, Stix (a hard-trying Derek Luke) is on hand to see Sister’s performance and has recently moved to Detroit to try and make a go of it in the music industry. Professing himself as the next Berry Gordy, Stix and Sparkle develop…well… sparks for one another (I couldn’t resist) and Sister is swept up in the notion of making a go of it as a singer.
But then…as Sister meets and crushes on the penniless but lovable Levi (Omari Hardwick), the Standard Issue Late-1960s Drug Lord Named Satin (Mike Epps) swoops in and rips Sister’s heart away, lavishing the impressionable woman with luxurious cash and prizes. Soon, Satin and Sister are a couple, Levi is out of the picture and through an uneasy alliance between Stix and Satin, Sister and The Sisters (come on…) become local breakout stars. Absurdly, all of this happens without Emma having an honest goodness clue and if you have seen Dreamgirls or any movie ever involving a woman who starts a relationship with a shady, promise-you-the-world dangerous kind of character, you know exactly where this is going.
If you are scoring at home – we have Sparkle. A first-born child named Sister. Satin. Stix. There is also a woman named Sara (Tamela Mann). A character listed as Stage Manager. A woman named Sister Clora and an extra who apparently played the role of Sugar. When I pull out my movie reviewer’s thesaurus for the word “terrible”, we should also toss in Serious and Severe. Those are not characters in the film, but they easily could have been. I dunno, maybe I missed them?
So to be serious for a minute, Sparkle is earnestly attempting to tell a melodramatic story with high-end musical production numbers and, I think, have Jordin Sparks’ character become this galvanizing and inspirational character audiences can rally behind and support. The screenplay is a complete failure however and so, we care about no one at all or ever. Emma’s diatribes to her children awkwardly crowbar in faith-based preaching and do nothing meaningful except force her adult children into wanting to spend next to no time with her at all. Time is never spent on letting us get to know these characters in any meaningful way. When Sparkle delivers her big “I can be a star” speech to a bothered and annoyed record executive late in the film, we are supposed to be cheering. And I wanted to go home.
Much will be made of Whitney Houston’s work here and especially one amazing musical number where she interprets the early-1900s spiritual, “His Eye Is On The Sparrow.” Houston is extraordinary in the moment, delivering a vocal many felt had left her years prior. It is a soul stirring sequence, but…and I apologize to Houston fans in advance…it does not work at all in the context of the film. The musical interlude only succeeds in reminding us of what Houston had but nearly lost with years of her personal issues and that her gift we can no longer experience.
Jordin Sparks delivers a rousing potential Oscar-contending original song, “One Wing” (written by R. Kelly) at the end of the film and reminds us in equal measure that not only is she a gifted singer but was truly miscast in the film. I like Jordin Sparks. She has a fantastic voice and a smile and presence that should make her a bigger star than she already is. But here, with Sparkle proudly wearing its faith-based Tyler Perry-soaked influences on its sleeve, she is lost in the milieu of unfocused direction and over-the-top writing.
Amounting to nothing more than a Lifetime Movie of the Week with large studio production values, Sparkle is aggravatingly dull and unremarkable. Oh Whitney. You deserved so much better than this.