Whatever else its legacy, the new remake of 'Sparkle' will be remembered first and foremost as Whitney Houston's last creative endeavor before her accidental death last February at the age of 48. Houston executive produced the film and stars as Emma, the devoutly religious and overly protective mother of three talented young musicians in 1968 Detroit.
Her daughters want to be pop stars, which puts Houston, whose character was chewed up and spit out by the music business years before, in the position to warn them about the perils of the industry. Dreams aren't enough, she warns; look at what it did to me. It's a riveting and slightly unsettling moment.
Because of Emma's constant admonishments, her girls pursue their ambitions in secret, sneaking out of the house after she falls asleep to perform at clubs all over Detroit as Sister and the Sisters. The sexy Sister (Carmen Ejogo) is their charismatic frontwoman, but backup singer Sparkle ('American Idol' winner Jordin Sparks) is the songwriter and the brains of the operation; third sister, Dee (Tika Sumpter) just wants to earn enough money to pay for med school. Their act catches the eye of two men who'll help shape their destinies: Stix (Derek Luke), who falls for Sparkle and becomes their manager; and Satin (Mike Epps), who falls for Sister and mostly covets her as another trophy of his success as a popular stand-up comedian. True to Emma's words, things don't go according to plan for Sister and the Sisters, and abusive spouses and abused substances quickly threaten to tear the trio apart.
If you've seen this sort of backstage melodrama once, you've seen it a thousand times; at least once in a previous version: 1976's 'Sparkle,' which was set in Harlem instead of Detroit. This 'Sparkle' doesn't bring many new twists to the old 'Behind the Music' formula, nor is its recreation of period Motor City all that convincing; characters talk about riots and racial tensions, but the small circle of characters we follow seem totally insulated from it.
Sister & the Sisters are a girl group in the mold of The Supremes or The Shirelles, and 'Sparkle' itself feels a little like a movie version of a pop group: safe, familiar material enlivened by talented performers. The most talented, or at least the most impressive, is Ejogo as the sultry, eye-catching Sister. With stunning beauty and a commanding stage presence, it's very easy to understand why Detroit audiences instantly fall for her, or why Stix sees dollar signs when he watches her sing. Ejogo has been a working actress in Hollywood productions for over fifteen years; she played Eddie Murphy's girlfriend in 1997's 'Metro.' Though the film's storyline is supposed to be about Sparkle suffering in her flashy but shallow sister's shadow, every slight looks justified in light of Ejogo's magnetism. She's not stealing the spotlight; she's taking what is rightfully hers. This could easily be a breakout role. It certainly deserves to be.
Making her acting debut, Sparks is fine -- and obviously a very good singer -- but forgettable. The other pleasant surprise besides Ejogo is Epps. Constantly flashing a Cheshire grin that's equally sly and sinister, he's ruthlessly effective as the conflicted, cruel Satin, who loathes his pandering comedy act but loves the things it buys him. Houston's role is thankless, but that doesn't make her any less effective, particularly when she's talking about the toll showbiz takes on people.
You can see and hear that toll in Houston's performance. Though she looks fine, and sounds good in her one musical number, a powerful and eerily appropriate church hymn called "His Eye Is On the Sparrow," Houston delivers most of her dialogue through a sad, raspy whisper. When Emma goes to visit Sister near the end of the film, her daughter greets her with the words "You look tired." "I am tired," Emma replies.
Houston's presence makes a run-of-the-mill cautionary tale about rock and roll stardom feel deeply personal. The reasons to listen to its warnings are right there on the screen.
‘Sparkle’ opens in theaters on Friday, August 17.
Matt Singer is a Webby award winning writer and podcaster. He currently runs the Criticwire blog on Indiewire and co-hosts the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast. His criticism has appeared in the pages of The Village Voice and Time Out New York and on ‘Ebert Presents at the Movies.’ He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, dog, and a prop sword from the movie ‘Gymkata.’