(2012)4Mark DemingSparkle will probably seem familiar to most first-time viewers for a number of reasons. Some folks may remember the original 1976 version of the film, while others might be reminded of Dreamgirls, which tells a story with more than a few points of similarity. But practically everyone has seen or heard a tale like this before -- Sparkle deals with dreams of show-business glory and the difficult bonds of family, and between these two tropes, the movie manages to cover an impressive range of clichés that have been staples in cinema and television for generations. Sparkle is a soap opera at heart, and as such, the key to its success isn't what it has to say, but how it says it. The film may not have anything new to add, but director Salim Akil and a strong and engaging cast fill it with enough energy and enthusiasm to make it click.
Sparkle is set in Detroit at some vague point in the mid-to-late-'60s. The cars and clothes suggest 1965 or 1966, a 1967 interview of Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mike Douglas Show is seen, and the characters dance to Sly and the Family Stone's mid-1968 single "Sing a Simple Song" -- and all of this occurs within the narrative space of a few days. At any rate, the story follows three sisters who share a home with their mother Emma (Whitney Houston) in the Motor City. Eldest sibling Sister (Carmen Ejogo) is talented, rebellious, and sexy, but her ambitions are vague at best. Middle sister Dolores (Tika Sumpter) is smart and practical, and dreams of becoming a doctor. And Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is the youngest and the most idealistic, but struggles with confidence; she's a gifted singer and songwriter, but lacks the courage to perform her work in public. After Sister makes a splash at a nightclub's talent show with a number Sparkle wrote, they're approached by Stix (Derek Luke), an aspiring manager who's certain Sparkle and Sister could be the core of a successful girl group: Sister has the star quality, and Sparkle has the songs. Dolores is persuaded to join so she can raise money for college, and Sister and the Sisters begin making a name for themselves on the Detroit music scene. However, the siblings need to keep their rising fame a secret from their mother. Emma was a singer in her youth, but ended up with some bad habits and a broken heart for her troubles, and now she's a stern, churchgoing woman who refuses to let her children get involved in secular music. When Sister throws off her caring but cash-strapped boyfriend Levi (Omari Hardwick) in favor of an arrogant yet wealthy standup comic named Satin (Mike Epps), she gets a taste of the show-business high life that fuels her most self-destructive impulses. As Sister begins to spin out of control before the group can make good on their promise, Sparkle is torn between her disapproving mother, her love for Stix, and her desire to make the most of her talent.
Whitney Houston died at the age of 48 a few months after shooting wrapped on Sparkle, and unsurprisingly, her presence in the film has dominated the advance press. Watching Houston in Sparkle is curious, because while it now serves as a postscript to her career, she was clearly eager to remake herself as a character actress in this picture. While she had previously always played the romantic lead, her character of Emma is a caring but often bitter middle-aged woman, and Houston doesn't shy away from her age or her harsh edges. Also, she only sings one song onscreen (the gospel standard "His Eye Is on the Sparrow"), and while her role is important to the film, she's by no means the star. If Houston's performance is uneven, she still clearly wanted to prove that she was as much an actress as a pop singer, and the well-documented excess of her later years adds a weight to the character she could never have managed in her heyday. Sparkle never feels like Whitney Houston's comeback vehicle, but instead a brave effort on her part to grow and change as a performer, and it makes one wonder what she could or would have done for an encore.
As for the rest of the cast, Jordin Sparks is the real surprise in Sparkle; while the American Idol winner has logged plenty of hours in front of TV cameras, this film marks her big-screen acting debut, and she handles herself with remarkable grace and assurance. Sparks balances Sparkle's talent, ambition, and shyness with aplomb, and the camera simply adores her; if this vehicle doesn't make her a movie star, it's hard to imagine what else could. Carmen Ejogo gets the flashiest role as Sister, and while she doesn't handle her third-act fall from grace as well as one might hope, she makes her character's wild ride something to savor. Tika Sumpter has the thankless task of playing the smart and stable middle child, but she makes herself heard despite the material and rocks a natural with style. Similarly, Derek Luke is as strong and passionate as he needs to be as Stix, and portrays him as a nice guy worth caring about. And Mike Epps rather bravely allows himself to be a truly memorable bastard; as the villain of the piece, Epps turns Satin into a man worthy of our contempt.
Sparkle is only the second feature film from director Salim Akil, but it's a significant improvement over his debut, 2011's Jumping the Broom. If Sparkle has a hard time deciding exactly what year it's set in, the movie still maintains a convincing period look and feel, and Akil stages the musical sequences well (even if he does go overboard on the finale). He gives this vision of Detroit a gritty undercurrent while still making room for nightclub glamour, and he gives his cast plenty of room to show off what they can do while moving the story along at a steady but commanding pace. Sure, Sparkle is a soap opera, but it's a soap opera made by people who believe in the material strongly enough to understand why it connects with people, and the result is a film that's emotionally sincere despite its familiarity, and entertaining even when it follows characters whose lives are in turmoil. Sparkle is the sort of big, splashy musical Hollywood supposedly doesn't make anymore, and it's an unexpectedly rich piece of big-screen entertainment that's a satisfying recipe even if you've been served this dish many times before.
A talented young woman is torn between her dreams and her family in this musical. Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) has been blessed with a beautiful voice and a gift for songwriting, but she's afraid to perform her songs in public, in part because her mother Emma (Whitney Houston), a former entertainer whose career brought her nothing but heartache, refuses to allow her daughters to sing outside of church. But Sparkle persuades her older sibling Sister (Carmen Ejogo) to sing one of her tunes at a talent show, and the reaction proves that Sister has star quality and Sparkle can write potential hits. An ambitious would-be manager, Stix (Derek Luke), persuades Sparkle and Sister to form a singing group with their sibling Dolores (Tika Sumpter), but while the act clicks wit audiences, the sisters have to contend with their angry mother, Sister gets caught up in a destructive relationship with a short-tempered comedian (Mike Epps), and Sparkle finds herself falling in love with Stix. Based on the 1976 musical of the same name, Sparkle proved to be the last major project for Whitney Houston, who died while the film was in post-production; it was also the first feature film for American Idol champion Sparks.