The original Sparkle, released in 1976, is somewhat of a cult film amongst black audiences. Set in the late fifties, the story of three sisters trying the navigate perils of the record business which include, narcissism, spousal abuse and drug addiction, featured amazing songs written by Curtis Mayfield and performed by Aretha Franklin. The inexperience of its young cast which included Lonette McKee, a pre-Miami Vice Philip Michael Thomas and singer Irene Cara was plainly obvious, yet future director Joel Shumacher and Howard Roseman’s story found an audience. Was a remake necessary? Well, is a remake ever necessary? Stories about singers struggling to get into show business are old hat these days, yet the 21st century seems prepared for a film of this type, especially since the look and style of the era it attempts to recreate is suddenly relevant again.
The strongest appealing factor for Sparkle’s target audience is that it marks the last film of the late, great singer Whitney Houston. Houston who also served as executive producer, hadn’t acted in quite some time, yet assuming the role of overbearing mother Emma, she projected a strength and stillness even some of the most experience actresses fail to master. Yes, its evident that the life she lived offscreen forever changed her voice, making it even grittier, but she could still command attention with it, either delivering dramatic lines or a gospel number.
With only a stint in the Broadway musical In The Heights under her belt, singer Jordin Sparks rarely demonstrates her lack of acting experience in the title role. Sparkle is the youngest of the three siblings, a musical prodigy who writes the songs for oldest sister Tammy aka “Sister” (Carmen Ejogo). Unlike Sparkle and middle sister Dee (Tiki Sumpter), an aspiring doctor, Sister doesn’t have the education to back up her powerful singing voice because she was too busy raising her siblings while Emma suffered a breakdown following her failed musical career. Desperate to flee her mother’s household for a second time, Sister agrees to start her own group with her siblings, under the direction of aspiring manager Stix (Derek Luke), who happens to have a thing for Sparkle. “Sister and Her Sisters” as the group is called, slowly make a name for themselves on the club circuit, but temptation arrives for their lead singer in the form of late night TV comic Satin (Mike Epps).
Sparkle gets off to a good start as the sisters figuratively find their own voices, working in unison to forge a successful music career and land a record contract in Motown. By midpoint when the story takes a turn towards the dark side of the business, Salim Akil’s amateurish direction doesn’t give the film the dramatic weight it deserves with plot turns and major developments often unintentionally feeling comical. Mike Epps is a performer who in the past has brought films down, trying to liven things up with his comedic antics and humor. In recent years, he’s been getting better, often playing roles straight and though Satin quickly becomes a villain in the piece, turning Sister on cocaine and abusing her, he’s also somewhat of a sympathetic character. Epps plays a man who has made a fortune humoring white audiences with his racial humor, but it’s clearly obvious his career has taken its toll and personal demons have overwhelmed him.
At times, the cautionary tale found within Sparkle’s story is too matter-of-fact and on the nose and it feels almost as if Mara Brock Akil’s screenplay is hitting over the head with it. Thankfully, actors like Epps, Houston and an incredibly powerful scene stealing Ejogo, are good enough to keep the dramatic elements of the material realistic and not like something we might find in a soap opera. Supporting players like Luke as Sparkle’s beau and Omari Hardwick as a struggling suitor unable to hold onto Sister, add some much needed flavor with their dimensional characters. Sparks gradually takes center stage within the story as the virginal Sparkle becomes a woman and steps out from behind the shadow and failures of her older sister. We already know the American Idol winner has a great voice, but her performance which showcases the evolution of her character is also quite impressive. Akil makes the mistake of getting too creative, employing unnecessary camera tricks and editing that would earn him an “F” in film school. Yes, Bill Condon did it better with Dreamgirls, which told a similar story, but that film also had the luxury of being a musical. Thankfully, the story and performances here are strong enough to be barely affected by Akil’s errors. Sparkle’s not a perfect film, but it has an earnest quality about it that’s commendable.