With Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps. Written by Mara Brock Akil. Directed by Salim Akil. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking). 116 minutes.
Why do you go to the movies? Is it to see some story that you’ve never seen before, or is for something else? If you’re looking for originality, SPARKLE – a remake of a minor 1976 movie – is not going to provide it. Even if you’re not familiar with the story, the formula elements will soon become blatantly obvious. If “Sparkle” works, it is in spite of the fact that we’ve seen this all before, if not in the earlier film than in many other variations of it.
It’s 1968 Detroit and Sister (Carmen Ejogo) has snuck out of the house to perform at a local nightclub having an open mike night. She’s sexy and she’s got a great voice and presence, but it’s Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) who provides the songs she sings. Stix (Derek Luke), an ambitious music promoter, sees his ticket not only to fame but to love. He thinks Sister is a great talent, but he falls for Sparkle. He puts together an act with Sparkle and a third sister, Dolores (Tika Sumpter) performing backup for Sister.
Given the premise and the title you can probably already guess much of the plot. What makes this especially poignant in spite of the clichés is the presence of the late Whitney Houston as Emma, mother to the three young women. Emma is a former singer who became a teenage mother and eventually left the industry to walk the straight-and-narrow. She’s been a strict mother whose singing is devoted to her church, and is not at all happy to discover the road her girls are on. Houston was also one of the film’s producers, and there are elements here that eerily reflect her own life. Given Houston’s unhappy end, it’s perhaps fitting that this movie provides the means for her career to conclude with dignity. She gives a solid performance here which should satisfy her fans looking for closure.
As for the main story, Sister is the one always looking out for number one, dumping a devoted boyfriend (Omari Hardwick) for the more successful, if nastier, Satin (Mike Epps, as the film’s villain).
Ejogo is hot, particularly in a see-through gown that never would have been allowed on television in 1968. The movie captures a good deal of its time, but it takes anachronistic liberties as well.
The real find here is Sparks, the “American Idol” winner making her big screen debut. Her singing is impressive and she creates a believable character in the innocent but ambitious Sparkle. It remains to be seen what sort of range she has, or if this already stretches the limits of her talent. Here, though, there’s no question that the camera loves her and viewers will be cheering her on.
In telling the stories of three sisters, “Sparkle” gives us one who must pay for her bad decisions, one who looks at music as a byway to her real goals, and one who feels she’s been given a gift and cannot imagine any other life. It’s a vehicle rather than a statement, providing a fitting eulogy for Houston and a solid launching pad for Sparks.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.