“Sparkle” is Whitney Houston’s first movie role in many years and, of course, her last- and that’s the primary thing about probably 95 percent of people who see the film will remember about it. It’s got some enjoyable music and Motown nostalgia, but what it’s missing is anything especially original or groundbreaking.
“Sparkle” is a remake of the 1975 film of the same name, which starred Philip Michael Thomas and Irene Cara and featured music by Curtis Mayfield. It was an early screenplay by eventual fanboy whipping boy Joel Schumacher, who also gets a “story by” credit on the new film.
The new “Sparkle,” directed by Salim Akil, is in many ways similar to the “Dreamgirls” movie from a few years ago, another sort-of Supremes biopic, adapted from ’70s source material, that even featured an American Idol alum in the key role.
The difference is, there’s nothing close to that underrated film’s grand scale, nor is there a performance anywhere near as strong as Jennifer Hudson’s, or for that matter Eddie Murphy’s.
The new film, like the original, is the story of three sisters who form a singing group, although the action has been moved from 1950s Harlem to ’60s Detroit: Sister (Carmen Ejogo), Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) and Dolores (Tika Sumpter), often against the wishes of their single mother (Houston), who its implied had a not-so-happy attempt at a music career itself.
Ejogo has the showiest role and acquits herself quite well. Sparks, in her first movie role, is an outstanding singer and dancer (unlike Hudson, she won her ‘Idol’ season), but doesn’t bring nearly the charisma and presence to the role that Hudson did to Effie White. It also must be said that those three actresses are so wildly different looking that I couldn’t believe them as sisters for a second.
Also in the film are Derek Luke as an ambitious music manager who romances Sparkle and Mike Epps as a loathsome, minstrel-like comedian/gangster who often seems to be visiting from a completely different movie. Cee-Lo Green shows up in the first scene as a character who we think is going to be important, but then he’s never seen or mentioned again.
Indeed, echoes of Houston’s own life story, intentional and not, are all over the film. Is she good in it? Not especially. She certainly looks unwell, and her one musical number is clearly supposed to be a showstopper, but really isn’t. Still, her final scene is an excellent one, and fans of hers will go home happy. And at least her final role didn’t consist of badly-shot, behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage from just a few days before she died, like in the case of Michael Jackson.
“Sparkle” is at its best in the musical numbers, which look and sound great. Some of Mayfield’s songs are used, including “Something He Can Feel”- which you may remember from En Vogue’s early-’90s cover, along with some new ones by R. Kelly, of all people.
Less successful is the pacing; the script makes no effort to establish how much time has passed or what year each events are taking place. The story begins in 1968, and there’s footage of Martin Luther King, but there’s never any mention of King’s assassination, and the film keeps wading lightly into political waters before gently backing away.
“Sparkle” isn’t a masterpiece and probably won’t contend for any Oscars. But it’s enjoyable enough as a nostalgia vehicle, as well as one more chance for Whitney Houston fans to see the singer on screen.