Sparkle – 2012
Directed by Salim Akil
Starring Jordin Sparks, CeeLo Green, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Tamela Mann, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick
Screenplay Mara Brock Akil, Howard Rosenman based on the film screenplay by Joel Schumacher and Rosenman
The first vision of Whitney Houston in the remake of the 1976 film, Sparkle is breathtaking. Not so much for anything she does, but for how much she has aged. It’s not that it was a bad look. Some of it was makeup. She was now at the point where she was beyond the precious look that she was naturally graced with in her youth. This look was more earned than that of her more successful years. The ensuing scenes with her are a welcome sight. She is a protective mother, for sure. It’s a role that feels like she lived it.
The tale is a loose approximation of a Supremes-type group. Instead of taking place in Harlem in the ’50’s, this one is in Detroit during the Motown heyday of the 60’s. This film exists along side of those groups, and indeed inspired by them. It gives the story more of a logical basis and really feels right.
Whitney plays the mother of three girls, Sister (Ejogo), Dee (Sumpter) and Sparkle (Sparks) who form a girl band based around the singing talent of one and the writing talent of another. They are managed by a man named Stix (Luke) who loves the writer (Sparks) and they find success. This is countered by Sister’s bad decisions to the point where tragedy strikes all three. In a striking missed opportunity, this tragedy is quickly, conveniently disposed of.
The soundtrack for the film, a mixture of songs from the original film as well as those from the new. For the most part, the work is fantastic, even incorporating Houston’s fading skills to the maximum extent. Her best days were behind her, but she still could inspire, especially with the production of the movie behind her.
There is a real force behind the combination of Ejogo, Sumpter and Sparks. They really do come off as sisters with distinct personalities and an unbreakable bond. This helps the film to overcome the familiar plot points. Each is given a distinct relationship with their strict, loving and flawed mother. The different paths give the film a power that emanates from the mostly silent authority from Houston. It cannot be underestimated how important this work was to her. Just like it can’t be overstated how important her presence is to this film.
Given that the film is named after Sparks’ character, her performance is key to the film. She is uneven as an actor, but she her singing comes from a real sense of real joy. Luke is a good companion for her. His performances are never showy and this is no exception. He is the rare actor that can sink into every role and be just enough to act as a glue, but not necessarily standing out. He could benefit every movie.
The film’s last 10 minutes are its best. The song “One Wing” is as good as anything R. Kelly ever wrote, but Sparks performs the hell out of it. Add to this moments of wounded joy shared between mother and daughter and you have the makings of a solid, emotionally honest film.
As the duet, “Celebrate” between Sparks and Houston rolls over the credits, thoughts of how little I had even pondered Whitney from the first time I had seen her on film, since her début in the atrocious The Bodyguard. As the world celebrated what would become her biggest song, I thought there had been unearthed an acting skill to match…let’s say, Diana Ross in The Wiz. I stopped looking forward to her, like, apparently, most everyone else. Now, after this triumph, we can only look back and wonder what we missed.
(**** out of *****)