It’s 1968, and there’s dancing and rioting in the streets. The Motown sound’s on the rise, racial tension’s at a fever pitch, and Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is a young black Detroiter who just wants to write that “one song that might save someone’s life.”
With her two sisters (Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter), Sparkle forms a girls group, Sister and the Sisters, which quickly owns the city. Her eldest, troubled sister Tammy (Ejogo) is the lead singer who adds the sex appeal to Sparkle’s songs and jumpstarts their career.
But Sparkle, with her little red book full of lyrics, is the only sister who’s truly got the music bug. This film’s about her journey toward self-confidence and ultimately toward her own career as a singer-songwriter.
The one thing that could possibly keep Sparkle and her sisters from nationwide success is their dominating mother, Emma (Whitney Houston), under whose roof they all still live. Emma doesn’t let them out at night—they continually have to sneak out for shows—and makes them do an hour of Bible study for every hour of color television they’re allowed to watch. If it’s Sunday morning, you can bet that their hair’s curled and they’re in the church choir. (It’s oddly never clear exactly how old the sisters are, although they seem to have at least graduated from high school.)
Of course, it’s impossible to separate this film from Houston’s tragic death earlier this year. This is her swansong, and it feels as if she somehow knew it to be so. When she performs a gospel tune, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” near the film’s end, it seems that the primary purpose of “Sparkle” is to allow Houston to blow the roofs off movie theaters one last time.
Houston is faded and raspy in a performance at once comic and chilling. When she delivers the line “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?” it’s heartbreaking.
There’s a wonderfully written and acted scene in which Emma presides over a family dinner to which she’s invited their preacher. Tammy shows up late with a sleazy new fiancé (Mike Epps), and the preacher and the fiancé are soon trading hilarious barbs. Pretty soon, the dinner’s out of control, with Emma and Tammy ready to pull each other over a cliff. Tammy publically humiliates her mother by recalling Emma’s rough times before she became a teetotaler.
All of the cast, including Sparks and Derek Luke as her manager/boyfriend, give spirited performances that help hold “Sparkle” together. A remake of a 1976 film, “Sparkle” overreaches as it proceeds, taking some dramatic turns that may draw unintended laughs from audiences. The film’s descent into drug addiction, abuse, and finally murder seems to come too quick.
But it’s refreshing to see a women’s melodrama that focuses exclusively on black women. While the story arc’s predictable, the husband-and-wife team of Salim Akil (director) and Mara Brock Akil (screenwriter) keeps the focus on these women’s complicated relationships within the family and with the men in their lives. At the same time, “Sparkle” emphasizes how show business too often works to tear relationships apart.
Although the production of the musical numbers lacks grit, the songs themselves are rousing throughout “Sparkle”—from Cee-Lo Green’s “I’m a Man,” which opens the film, to Sparks’s finale. Naturally, though, no one can top Whitney. Even in a supporting role, this is her show.
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