Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Mike Epps, Derek Luke, Carmen Ejogo, Omari Hardwick, Linda Boston, Cee-lo Green, Curtis Armstrong, Michael Beach
Mara Brock Akil, Howard Rosenman
Commentary with Director/Producer Salim Akil;A Dream Come True;A Tribute to Whitney Houston
The only thing that sparkles about this remake of a 1976 music melodrama is fool's gold, a deceptive shine on an otherwise dim and uninspired film that will likely garner decent opening weekend box-office thanks largely to the film also serving as a posthumous love song of sorts to the recently deceased Whitney Houston.
Houston plays Emma, a bible totin' former singer whose journey towards success was interrupted by too much fame and too much fortune way too soon. When the fast life became too much, Emma turned to booze and when that became too much and threatened to destroy her family she turned to Jesus.
Boy, did she ever turn to Jesus.
It's not surprising that noted preacher T.D. Jakes is one of the producers of Sparkle, given the film's Tyler Perry style moralizing and rigid righteousness.
Emma is now the stern, no nonsense mother of three young ladies - Sister (Carmen Ejogo), Dee (Tika Sumpter) and Sparkle (American Idol alum Jordin Sparks). Sister is already headed down the wrong path, the film opening with her having returned home following a failed marriage. Dee, on the other hand, is struggling to get to the funding to go to medical school while 19-year-old Sparkle is the good girl of the bunch, a faithful church-goer who writes song after song and is desperate to sing them but who always defers to the seemingly more talented and outgoing Sister.
The only thing that saves this pile o' pop cliche's is the outstanding music that fortunately weaves its way through the film and serves to salvage nearly every overwrought and over-written histrionic scene. Everything is here ranging from the up-and-coming manager who convinces Sparkle to sparkle to Sister's descent into coked out wastoid girlfriend of an abusive comic (a terrific Mike Epps) whose entire career has been built on catering to a white audience.
There's more, quite a bit more, but they all pale in comparison to the painful and downright embarrassing cliche' portrayed by Whitney Houston herself, whose appearance here brings to mind that dreadful last turn by John Candy in Wagons East, a film that simultaneously reminded you how brilliant Candy could be and how pitiful it was that it all had to end up the way it did. The same is true here, with Houston's pristine vocals a distant memory and her entire being exuding a sort of emotional paralysis that feels like it's a lot more Whitney than Emma. Houston's last act nearly brilliant cover of "His Eye is On The Sparrow" is a powerful reminder of the talent that once was, but a good majority of Sparkle will likely leave you shaking your head and thinking to yourself "What a waste!"
There's almost no denying that Sparkle will add much more of a box-office wallop thanks to Houston's grieving fans, who certainly packed the house during the film's Indianapolis promotional screening and who will likely show up en masse on opening weekend. There's also almost no denying that were Houston still alive, Sparkle would likely be an amusing afterthought with stilted dialogue, hit-and-miss acting and almost achingly bad cinematography that somehow manages to dilute the emotional impact of even the most dramatic scenes in the film. Much like Michael Jackson, until Whitney Houston died she'd become more tabloid fodder than a respected musician/actress and you'd be hard-pressed to find too many folks who were surprised when the news of her tragic death was announced.
Having not seen the original 1976 film upon which this is based, I chuckled a bit when I looked up the film following my screening of this Jordin Sparks-led version and realized that Irene Cara, whom I kept thinking would have been much more amazing as Sparkle, actually was Sparkle in the original film. While Sparks certainly has a killer voice and really shines near film's end, she lacks the required emotional vulnerability that would have really sold her character. Her character's big emotional break-through, standing up to mama, feels like Acting 101 with a "B" or "C" grade. In fact, the film's real stand-out performances come from Carmen Ejogo and Mike Epps, who are combustible separately but downright explosive together. While Ejogo isn't going to win any Oscar awards anytime soon, she definitely puts the sizzle in sparkle. Epps, on the other hand, may be playing a comedian but it's when he's showing his dark side here that his performance becomes simply mesmerizing.
While this updated Sparkle is technically superior to the 1976 film, that's really not saying much. D.P. Anastos N. Michos' camera work is abysmal, a reckless mixture of uncomfortable close-ups, wide panning shots lacking in anything resembling resonance andoccasional trick transitional shots that are nothing short of distracting. The film's period details, it's set in the late 1960's when Detroit was still a music king, are quite impressive and the transcendent quality of the music cannot be stressed too much. It's almost worth watching Sparkle simply for the music itself.
Mostly, Sparkle is, as Houston's Emma would say, a "cautionary tale" about a life wasted chasing all the wrong dreams and destroying oneself in the process. There are lines in this film that are so achingly poignant that it's hard not to despise screenwriter Mara Brock Akil, director Salim Akil's spouse, for writing them. Akil, who also directed the under-appreciated Jumping The Broom, seems to understand the power of this material but, in the end, a film that should inspire instead collapses under the burden of a gifted singer gone way too soon and a story that is far too timid to stand-out from that tragedy's all encompassing shadow.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic