Sparkle is a story about the transformative power of music, the dark side of fame and a young church choirgirl with a dream… can you see how it might be hard to talk about the movie outside of the context of Whitney Houston’s death? Let’s try, though. Because despite the seeming need to draw Michael Jackson-ian comparisons, Sparkle was never going to be Houston’s “This Is It” Tour – an epic comeback with which to relaunch her career. Instead, the movie is a showcase vehicle for a new generation of young actress-hyphen-singers, led, at least titularly speaking, by American Idol champ Jordin Sparks.
Anyone who has seen Dream Girls, What’s Love Got To Do With It? or even The Doors will find themselves in familiar (if inferior) territory here, complete with all the giddy hallmarks of the late ’60s music-group-on-the-rise sub-genre – musical montages with loads of hair and outfit changes, a front wo/man who’s gotten too big for their go-go boots, and that scene where the big shot record producer struts into the dressing room to tell the young hopefuls that they’ve got what it takes.
Sparkle’s more specific narrative follows the Andrews sisters of Detroit. There is Sister (the sexy one, played by Carmen Ejogo), Dolores (the smart one, played by Tika Sumpter) and Sparkle (the talented, virginal songwriter with a dream, played by first time actor Sparks).
In the Andrews household a girl either sticks to her Bible-studies or winds up poor, pregnant and alone, as was the fate of the family matriarch (Houston as Emma). In a scene that I’m sort of surprised made it into the final cut (Houston died while Sparkle was in post-production), Sister reminisces a childhood where she would often find her mother passed out in a heap of her own vomit. Whitney, or rather Emma, retorts that that happened “only once.”
Of course the girls defy Mama’s warnings and soon find themselves opening on the same circuit as Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye. All of their dreams are coming true until Sister strikes up a volatile love affair with a celebrity (Mike Epps as sleazy standup comedian Satin Struthers is standout if uncomfortably reminiscent of Laurence Fishburne’s Oscar-nominated turn as Ike Turner in the aforementioned Tina Turner bio-pic).
The irony of Sparks’s performance (that she is solid enough, but fails to sparkle in any way) will likely turn her career, at least as far as movie making goes, into another post-Idol cautionary tale. Egojo – who will almost certainly be labelled Beyoncé Lite, but is in fact more dynamic, sexy and, dare we say, Bootylicious than the real thing – plays hardened vulnerability to perfection, so much so that you wonder (given her 38 years) where Hollywood has been hiding her.
This movie is not Houston’s legacy – anyone who wants to hear that can download her double disc Greatest Hits collection or go check out the just-launched tribute exhibition at the Grammy museum in L.A. Houston’s performance in Sparkle – essentially a series of camera-pandering “diva expressions” and a horrible red weave – sees her bloated and sweaty, presumably fighting the demons that would soon derail her. Was she ever a great actress? No. I can recite most of The Bodyguard from memory, and still I can concede that much.
In the movie’s most poignant scene, Emma performs a gospel standard for the congregation: “I sing because I’m happy/I sing because I’m free.” For fans, it’s a fitting, post-mortal epitaph. A reminder of what made Whitney sparkle.