There’s a moment in Sparkle where Whitney Houston’s stern matriarch character looks directly at her fame-seeking daughters over Sunday lunch and asks with her trademark rasp, “Is my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?” It’s impossible not to think of the real life Whitney when hearing that line, and it’s with rather depressing benefit to Sparkle that nearly every word spoken by Houston throughout the film carries the extra weight of us knowing just how right her character actually is about the music industry, even when she’s supposed to be in direct narrative opposition to Jordin Spark’ Sparkle, who just stares back with puppy dog eyes and a face so fresh that it’s primed for a Neutrogena commercial. We know that face; it used to be Whitney’s way back when she was just another kid singing in her church choir just like Sparks does in this film, and it’s with that inability to separate fact from fiction that Sparkle adopts a rather unsettling amount of pathos and simmering tension underneath its well-worn music industry clichés. Even when Houston’s Emma comes to her senses to watch her youngest daughter fulfill her “Mama, I wanna be a STAR” dreams at the end of the movie, there’s still a lingering feeling of “Yes, but how much longer can this good moment last?”
Houston’s performance is so terrific in hindsight, that it almost makes you wonder what the point of this film would have been had poor Whitney not moved on to her maker last February. As if her responding to lines like “You look tired” with a weary “I am” weren’t chilling enough, Houston even gets to steal the show with a late in the game performance of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” that couldn’t have resembled Houston’s own 4-hour church funeral any more if it tried. These are the scenes when Sparkle works, and as much as it might be pure dumb luck on the filmmaker’s behalf that they do because of the circumstances, that still doesn’t take away how much I felt like I needed to clutch my heart when, in pure classic Whitney style, Houston looks at Sparkle sing her final number and mouths the words, “Yes, baby” with her eyes fluttering and head nodding in just the way you’re imagining it in your head right now.
Still, you sort of have to wonder what made them want to remake Sparkle in the first place. The original, despite some incredibly catchy tunes penned by Curtis Mayfield (including “Something He Can Feel,” which got a sexy makeover by En Vogue 20 years ago), doesn’t have much of a legacy, and while it may have predated the Broadway Dreamgirls by a few years, there’s still no way modern audiences are going to see Salim Akil’s update and not be reminded just how much more Bill Condon’s musical numbers in the 2006 Dreamgirls film adaptation dazzled compared to the relatively pedestrian way director Salim Akil shoots them here.
For a while Sparkle feels like C+ Dreamgirls – which is fine – but it’s not long into the story that it all begins to crumple under the weight of Lifetime-like melodrama and all the coke-fueled Ike & Tina histrionics you’d expect from a movie that casts Mike Epps as a slick-talking comedian who’s so one-dimensionally villainous that I pondered whether or not his origin story came from the pages of a Tyler Perry script. Eventually Akil gets bored with how paint by the numbers the whole thing is and starts to overstuff his film with a bunch of inappropriate director flourishes, including one slow-motion shot that elicited a round of snickers from the crowd during the film’s most dramatic moment. At least they clapped when Whitney sang, right?
Jordin Sparks is as hard to dislike here as she was on American Idol, but she also seems uncomfortable as an actress and her Sparkle will likely go down in the books as one of the least dynamic title characters in cinematic history. She’s upstaged not only by Houston, but also by British actress Carmen Ejogo as the sultry Sister. It’s Ejogo who gets the majority of the musical numbers, and it’s not until the final scene that Sparks really gets to bust loose with a new song penned by R. Kelly. Even then, it’s a moment marred by a handful of really unflattering camera angles and the last in a long line of costumes far too risqué to exist in the late 60’s.
In the end it doesn’t matter much. This is Whitney’s movie now, and while it isn’t quite the send off Heath Ledger had with the Joker, fans will be happy to see Whitney in a role where she finally looks at peace with something. Her performance feels like it could have been the start of a new phase in her career, but in true diva fashion, Houston will just have to leave us wanting more.
– Marcus Michalik will always love youuuuuuu