Sparkle recycles the familiar rags-to-riches, Supremes-inspired, Motown story told most famously in Dreamgirls and adds a heap of unwieldy melodrama. But when it comes to spending two hours in a movie theater, you could do a lot worse. Most importantly, the movie offers a dignified end to Whitney Houston’s brief but notable acting career. Happily, the late legend gives a fine performance as the uptight, deeply religious mother, turning a clichéd role into one worthy of her prodigious talents. The character’s obvious parallels with Houston’s own life – her Emma is a former singer who suffered through serious personal problems – have an eerie resonance now, but Sparkle earns serious points just by giving audiences a fifth and final chance to see Houston act on film.
The story centers on the overprotective Emma’s three beautiful daughters – Sister (Carmen Ejogo), Dolores (Tika Sumpter), and protagonist Sparkle (American Idol winner Jordin Sparks) – who form a girl group in ’60s Detroit. The screenplay, which weaves in an abusive husband (Mike Epps), an ambitious manager (Derek Luke), and drug addiction, hits the familiar beats with such deadening consistency that you could set your watch to it.
But there are rewards to be found in the good old-fashioned three-act structure, satisfaction to be had in experiencing the group’s rise and fall. Director Salim Akil, remaking the 1976 film of the same name, features splashy performances of songs by Curtis Mayfield and R. Kelly, delivered in hopping, smoky underground clubs and large lavish theaters. The movie sharply contrasts that world with Emma’s church-bound existence, and there’s enough of a push-and-pull between the competing influences for Sparkle and her sisters to sustain some dramatic tension.
Sparks has an appealing, if raw, onscreen presence and Ejogo taps into something special as Sister, projecting the sort of beautiful, ethereal frailty of so many great, flawed show biz talents. Luke and Epps have their moments too, giving the litany of conventions as much conviction and depth as they can.
But once the movie launches into full-on, unvarnished melodrama, it loses its way. The drama-lite sensibility of the opening third gives way to a stream of stern, tearful confrontations, and the director has a tough time grappling with the sudden influx of substance and spousal abuse, among other outsized developments. Akil’s preferred tactic is to rev up the stylistic manipulations, opting for slow-mo, a weird handheld close-up and other conceits that simply make it hard to take Sparkle’s dark turn seriously.
The unrealistic depiction of the music business specifically and life generally, manifest in the suddenness with which the sisters become sensations, the swiftness with which they fall and the ease with which their perils are resolved, is expected and could be forgiven if the movie ever departed from the standard template, even for a minute. But Sparkle doesn’t and it’s hard to recommend because of that, even if it offers Houston’s fans one more welcome chance to say goodbye.
The Upside: Whitney Houston’s last performance is a quality one, in a tasteful, compelling part.
The Downside: The movie never departs from the clichéd rags-to-riches script. Not for a moment.
On the Side: Houston, who was reportedly a big fan of the original Sparkle, executive produced the remake. We’ll miss her talents.