Sparkle commands attention because it's the last movie for Whitney Houston and the first for American Idol winner Jordin Sparks.
The film tells the story of three sisters who want to become the next Supremes over the protestations of their church-going single mom (Houston), a former R&B singer who got burned by the music biz. No, this isn't a redo of Dreamgirls. This is a makeover of 1976's Sparkle, which starred Flashdance singer Irene Cara. Houston was 13 when it came out, and the film reportedly inspired her so much that she watched it over and over as a teenager, and later secured the remake rights.
Houston, who died three months after filming wrapped, holds her own, though she looks a bit out of it at times. The camera adores Sparks, though she is no Jennifer Hudson. The music and characterizations are strong. But what prevents Sparkle from shimmering is a predictable plot.
In short: The oldest daughter and lead singer, Sister (the tough and sultry Carmen Ejogo), moves in with a high-living comedian (the pimpish Mike Epps). When Sister ends up in jail for accidentally killing her abusive beau and the middle sister goes off to college, Sparkle (Sparks), a reluctant singer but gifted songwriter, steps up to the microphone solo. And — guess what? — Houston, the conflicted but proud mama, is clapping in the theater.
The Bodyguard star gives a curious performance in her final role, which is a modest one. At times, she looks to be in a glassy-eyed haze, which doesn't befit a rehabbed, Bible-teaching dress-shop owner. Her lone vocal performance comes on "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," an old spiritual, and her once-gorgeous, stratospheric voice sounds weathered and dulled. But she looks clear-eyed and handsome when she shows up at Sparkle's big concert.
As the insecure, innocent ingenue, Sparks, 22, seems a bit tentative at first. But, like her character, she gains her footing. The scene in which she and Houston have the big argument about Sparkle moving out of the comfortable family home to pursue her musical dreams is so powerful that it doesn't feel like acting. One disconnect throughout the movie, though, is Sparks' hair, which is too long and luxe for a black woman of that era (the film is set in 1968 Detroit); most of the other characters look more authentic.
As a singer, Sparks shines. Her payoff tune is the R. Kelly-penned "One Wing," which could be a female answer to his "I Believe I Can Fly." Kelly wrote three new numbers for Sparks. The film also reprises some Curtis Mayfield-written selections from the original "Sparkle," including "Something He Can Feel."
Sparks already has started shooting her second film, a music-free indie drama with former Idol finalist Hudson, who won a best supporting Oscar for her debut in Dreamgirls. If Sparks goes on to enjoy success on the screen, Sparkle will be remembered as her first film; otherwise it's destined to be known only as Houston's last role.
Directed by Salim Akil. Screenplay by Mara Brock Akil and Howard Rosenman. A Sony Pictures release, playing at Rave Franklin Park, Fallen Timbers, and Levis Commons. Rated PG-13 for violence, drugs, domestic abuse, and language. Running time: 116 minutes.
Critic's rating: * * 1/2
Sparkle ......... Jordin Sparks
Emma .........Whitney Houston
Stix .......... Derek Luke
Satin .......... Mike Epps
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