In her final acting role, Whitney Houston portrays the imperious matriarch of a 1960s-era girl group featuring Jordin Sparks as an aspiring soul diva.
The look, styles, dialogue and attitudes all feel more 21st century than 1968, but this new Sparkle still sparkles more brightly than its 1976 namesake, which was a sort of rough draft for Dreamgirls. Like its predecessor both melodramatic and predictable in illustrating the rise of a girl group in the black music scene, this new version pops with energy and adds welcome new angles to the plot and characters.
And there is also a vibrant Houston, both as executive producer and in an important role, in no way looking like she wouldn’t survive until the film’s release.
Set in Harlem in 1958, the original featured Joel Schumacher’s first produced screenplay, was directed by Sam O’Steen and derived most of its force from Lonette McKee’s sensational performance as the eldest member of a three-sister singing act aiming for the big time. Unfortunately, she was gone before the movie was half over.
Evidently recognising that the earlier script was a connect-the-dots affair with little meat on its bones, screenwriter Mara Brock Akil has not only brought the action forward by 10 years but made well-judged decisions about how to revise and moderately enrich the main characters, most of whom bear the same names as before.
At first, the “Sister and Her Sisters” singing group, like the film itself, gets by on the sex appeal of the Diana Ross-like lead singer, dynamically played by the stunning Carmen Ejogo. Like her siblings, appealing but virginal songwriter Sparkle (Sparks) and down-to-earth aspiring med student Dee (Tika Sumpter), Sister lives at home with their mother, Emma (Houston), but can’t wait to get out and sees musical success as her best shot.
One positive alteration right out of the box is changing the mother from a boring worn-out domestic to a middle-class character who never made it as a pop singer but can still bring down the house wailing gospel at church. Emma’s past failure hangs over her daughters like a stationary cloud, and Houston does utter one line that reverberates with inescapable real-life implications: “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?”
As the group begins to attract attention, Sister is courted by the earnest but penniless Levi (Omari Hardwick), who can’t offer her what she really wants. One who can is the elegant local operator Satin (Mike Epps), a character who was a standard-issue tough thug in the original but here has been intriguingly reconceived as a smug comedian. Accompanied wherever he goes by an albino factotum, Satin sweeps Sister off her feet but takes her to a darker, dire place.
For her part, the bashful Sparkle receives no end of encouragement and amorous attention from aspiring music manager Stix (Derek Luke), who sees it as his appointed task in life to make Sparkle realise her potential not only as a songwriter but as a performer. The hyper-realist Dee wins points by bluntly admitting how she knows nobody even notices her when her sisters are around – at least until she becomes the first in the neighbourhood to get an Afro haircut.
Through all the adversity and turmoil – compounded most of all by Sister’s drug addiction and abusive relationship as well as by Emma’s disapproval of her daughters’ career aspirations, which drives them all away – Akil and her director-husband Salim Akil keep a close eye on Sparkle’s constant songwriting in her notepad.
The family’s roots in gospel and church life are amply displayed, as is Houston’s own deep connection to the form in a powerful, climactic number, Celebrate, that serves as her cinematic musical swansong.
The musical choices, overseen by executive music consultant R Kelly, are eclectic, ranging from sultry and/or soulful originals (some of which Kelly wrote) to vintage standards (Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin, Sly and the Family Stone) and even some white pop (Cream, Nancy Sinatra) that Sparkle likes to watch on TV.
Where Sparkle scants is in credible period evocation. There’s a mention of riots in Detroit and a glimpse of Martin Luther King jr , but no sense that either means more to these characters than they would have to white teenagers in Portland. Nor is King’s death even noted, though it took place in the year depicted. Despite having been shot in Michigan, very little specific atmosphere is imparted. Many of the sets look far too modern, just as the dialogue is studded with usages that were, in some cases, decades away.
But the interplay among the characters pulsates and the dramatic confrontations are sufficiently charged for the audience to get past the rampant aspirational clichés, or at least ride with them.
In what’s mostly the women’s film, Epps does a first-rate job as the oily seducer, while Luke manages credibly despite his character’s goody-goody demeanour. – The Hollywood Reporter