I don’t think anyone going to see Sparkle expects a gritty slice of realism or a life-altering experience. It’s an unabashed soap opera with the curiosity value of singer Jordin Sparks in her big-screen debut and Whitney Houston in her final film appearance. If you know all that going in, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed coming out.
My memories of the 1976 movie (with Irene Cara, Lonette McKee, and Philip Michael Thomas) are too dim to make comparisons, but I know that it took place in Harlem in the 1950s, while this remake is set in Detroit during the 1960s. It turns out to be a comfortable fit, and the movie’s colorful period production and costume design are among its strengths.
Houston plays the strict, churchgoing mother of three daughters who is unaware that they have organized a girl group. Tika Sumpter is on a career track but is willing to sing if she’s being paid. Sexy Carmen Ejogo has a great voice and stage presence, and is the “baby” of the family, Jordin Sparks, loves to sing but lets her sister take the spotlight while she provides backup and follows her other passion: songwriting. The always-solid Derek Luke plays an up-and-comer who wants to manage the sisters’ singing act on the road to stardom. And Mike Epps plays a successful, super-slick comedian who’s king of the hill and acts that way, especially when he lays eyes on Ejogo.
The conflicts and aspirations of these characters play out pretty much as you’d expect, with the allure of fame and fortune, the reality behind the glamor, and the danger of living in the fast lane all playing a part in the story. Mara Brock Akil’s screenplay hits all the anticipated beats and director Salim Akil draws good (if not subtle) performances from his well-chosen cast.
Sparkle opens with Cee-Lo Green performing in a Detroit nightclub, followed by the sensual Ejogo, who scores a hit with the crowd singing one of Sparks’ irresistible songs—in a revealing, skin-tight dress. The score draws on a mix of Curtis Mayfield tunes from the 1976 movie—which spawned a hit album for Aretha Franklin—and includes new material by R. Kelly. Sparks finally gets to strut her stuff in a big concert-hall finale.
The former American Idol winner and pop star comes off quite well with a sincere performance as the “good girl” of the family who has to unleash her own ambition in order to succeed, and her vocal spots are top-drawer.
Huston establishes a strong presence as the girls’ unyielding mother, and reveals that she could have pursued a second career in character parts had she chosen to. She only has one musical moment, singing the spiritual “His Eye is on the Sparrow” (in a lower register than one would expect) during an emotional church scene, but she makes the most of it.
Is Sparkle corny and predictable? Of course it is. It’s also highly watchable and a good showcase for its principal cast members.