In future years, “Sparkle” will be remembered as Whitney Houston’s final bow before audiences — a legacy that, while technically accurate, will be somewhat misleading in that the late singer-actress only plays a supporting role (and a cookie-cutter one at that). She gets one big song to herself, which seems disconnected from the rest of the movie, as if it was inserted after the script was completed because the filmmakers realized that they couldn’t cast Houston and not give her a dramatic number to belt out. Apart from the number, Houston plays the stereotypical overprotective mother who is reluctant to accept her children’s desires for fame — a character used to fuel the plot with stock conflict. “Sparkle” is not the finest hour of the famous diva’s career, nor was it intended to be.
But perhaps the filmmakers should be glad that “Sparkle” will be remembered at all–that is, if they can put aside the tragic reason for said remembrance–because the movie, like Houston’s character, is pretty standard-issue. Viewers looking for something they haven’t seen before in this remake of the 1976 film about a girl group of three sisters trying to make it in ‘60s Mowtown will be sorely disappointed.
That said, those with more modest expectations should be satisfied by the movie’s forcefully delivered melodrama and pleasant period tunes, which are a combination of renditions of Curtis Mayfield’s songs from the original film and new creations produced by R. Kelly. While the screenwriting for “Sparkle” is uninspired and derivative, the movie boasts several good traits that make it a solid Friday night diversion, if nothing more.
The strongest testament to director Salim Akil and his cast’s work is the fact that they are able to sell the melodrama; no matter how over-the-top and soap opera-like the situations get, the characters always feel like real people. In this respect, the movie’s most valuable asset is actress Carmen Ejogo, who plays the older sister of Jordin Sparks’ title character. As the attractive front-woman of the girl-group, she is the source of most of the aforementioned over-the-top situations, succumbing to cocaine addiction and marrying an abusive man (credibly played by Mike Epps, in an unusual change of pace for the actor). Presenting such serious issues in a heightened style always runs the risk of trivializing them, but Ejogo gives the character a real soul that keeps her dramas believable even when Akil goes a little overboard with visual flourishes.
Sparks’ Sparkle doesn’t become the sole focus of the film until the final act, even though it is told from her emotional point-of-view from the get-go. The “American Idol” winner is merely a serviceable actress, but she was a smart choice for the role because she has definite charisma and her voice sounds great on tape. By virtue of its title alone, “Sparkle” telegraphs that the character will eventually try to make a go of a solo career, and when that time comes, Sparks is able to carry the picture just fine. Fusing Sparks’ effortless presence and Akil’s exuberant filmmaking style, the climactic musical sequence is particularly joyous entertainment. The movie may not reinvent the wheel and, if not for Houston’s presence, it would be forgotten by next month, but it’s a good time to be had.