Film Review: “Sparkle”

by Jason LeRoy on August 16, 2012

Jordin Sparks and Whitney Houston in SPARKLE

starring: Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Whitney Houston, Mike Epps, Derek Luke, Omari Hardwick

written by: Mara Brock Akil

directed by: Salim Akil

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking

There are two separate reviews to be written of Sparkle, Salim and Mara Brock Akil’s remake of the understated Irene Cara 1976 girl group drama: the review that addresses the Whitney factor, and the one that doesn’t. So let’s start with the latter. Updating the setting from 1958 Harlem to 1968 Detroit, Sparkle is the story of three sisters — goody-goody Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), troubled bombshell Sister (Carmen Ejogo), and whip-smart Dolores (Tika Sumpter) — who start a girl group with the assistance of Stix (Derek Luke), an aspiring music manager and Sparkle’s suitor. They hide this from their mother, Emma (Whitney Houston), an overprotective church lady who was “nearly killed” by her own experience as a professional singer earlier in life. But when Sister gets mixed up with Satin (Mike Epps), a race-traitor comedian with a bad temper and a drug habit, the girls find themselves in danger of losing everything they’ve worked for.

Sparkle is competently made and, for the most part, well-acted. The weakest link is Sparks, misguidedly making her feature film debut with a lead role. She’s not bad so much as bland, but at least shows enough presence to be engaging. Regardless, she is fully eclipsed by the marvelous, magnetic Ejogo. This is truly a star-making performance that honors the haunting work of Lonette McKee in the original. Not only is the British-born Ejogo a bewitching beauty who serves face like Rihanna crossed with Evelyn Lozada, but her beauty is matched by her acting chops. Where has this woman been, and how is she 38 years old? This deserves to be the beginning of a much more prolific chapter in her film career. Sumpter nails every tart-tongued line as the uncompromising Dolores, while Derek Luke, Mike Epps, and Omari Hardwick do their best with weakly written male supporting roles.

Salim Akil’s direction is serviceable, although it goes awry with several stop-start slo-mo sequences and one extremely out-of-place grainy DV closeup during the film’s melodramatic climax. And about that melodrama: Mara Brock Akil’s adaptation breaks from the more naturalistic plot progression of the original, regrettably breaking the film into a solid first half and a laughably histrionic second half. The reductive “price of fame” moralizing verges on Tyler Perry territory, but more on that later. At the very least, the film showcases Ejogo’s searing allure and seductive vocals in its musical numbers, many of which are lifted from the legendary soundtrack of the original (a collaboration between Aretha Franklin and Curtis Mayfield), including the song younger kids will mistake for an En Vogue cover, “Something He Can Feel.” The score is by Salaam Remi, the celebrated producer who worked with Mark Ronson on Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black.

And now, Whitney. Watching Whitney Houston in this film is a painful experience on several levels, none of which are about her performance, which is very good; she displays that fire and warmth and humor we’d come to love from her acting, and we miss her, and it is sad. But just the mere physical fact of Whitney, with her weary eyes and alarmingly scorched speaking voice, makes this hollow redemption story (produced, not coincidentally, by evangelical superstar T.D. Jakes) seem almost dangerously trite and superficial. There are several parallels between Whitney and her character which were presumably intentional in the casting: as previously mentioned, Emma used to be a professional singer, but it led to self-destructive behavior that she doesn’t want to see her daughters repeat. She makes references to her checkered past and being “a cautionary tale,” and it is difficult to watch.

One can imagine that Whitney thought of this role as the symbolic beginning to a new chapter in her own life, one in which she’d finally have her own hard-fought redemption and emerge as an inspiring mentor to younger women. This, of course, makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch. The film addresses similar problems to the ones that ultimately claimed her life, but it insults her memory with its well-meaning glibness: “Just go to church and have faith that it will all work out as it should.” Whitney’s life story does not exactly support this concept. The film’s most emotional scene is her final musical number, the gospel staple “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” into which she pours her embattled soul. Watching Whitney desperately attempt to shake those high notes out of her broken body is a wrenching thing, and the devastating reality of her final moments makes the hymn’s refrain — “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me” — seem false.

In the original film, Sister died of a drug overdose, one of several ways it was grounded in a reality this film will not acknowledge. This is a well-meaning but vacant fantasy of faith, hope, and vindication. Emma lives to see her daughters learn from her mistakes. Whitney did not. I think what bothers me so much about Sparkle is that it makes it seem like faith is all you need to overcome your struggles, when Whitney’s death proves quite the opposite. In this film, all the demons are efficiently and ridiculously resolved with zero regard for the hard work of truly addressing them. It is this inspirational culture of “faith will overcome” that played its own part in enabling Houston’s demise, and I’m angry that she’s gone, and I’m taking it out on this movie. But despite the film — and even in spite of Whitney, who was quite skilled at distracting from her addiction with blustery indignation and megawatt charm — the bone-deep grit and scar tissue of her performance testify to a far more complex truth, one the film would rather neglect so that Jordin Sparks gets to become Alicia Keys at the end.

Sparkle opens nationwide on August 17.

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