Reviewer's Rating: ★★
Sparkle, a remake of the 1976 musical drama starring Irene Cara as the title character, casts 2007 American Idol winner Jordin Sparks as a shy aspiring songwriter living in a strict religious home with her two older sisters and domineering mother.
The original film’s setting is moved from New York City to Motor City, aka Detroit, home of the mighty Motown Records. The year is 1968 and the stars of Motown regularly send hits into the national pop and rhythm-and-blues charts.
Relocating Sparkle to Detroit in the late ’60s reinforces the story’s link to Motown’s top girl group, the Supremes. Sparkle and her sisters Tammy and Delores form a trio, but mostly to back beautiful oldest sister Tammy.
The movie opens at a talent competition at the Discovery Club.
A good launching point, the scene features a singing cameo from modern-day music star Ceelo Green. Stix, an aspiring manager played by Derek Luke, catches Tammy’s sensuous performance and meets little sister Sparkle. Stix’s twin pursuit of Sparkle’s affection and the sisters’ singing group begins.
But the film isn’t quite ready for primetime. It feels old-fashioned and looks like a TV movie. Fortunately, the stale storyline gets lifted by performances from Sparks, Tika Sumpter and Carmen Ejogo as Sparkle’s sisters and Luke as the good-hearted Stix.
The movie becomes a stilted drama in which the potential emotion in such a scenario rarely is achieved. Flaws include the late Whitney Houston’s constricted performance as the Anderson sisters’ bitter single mother, Emma. This supremely intolerant character generates little sympathy. It’s eerie, too, that Emma’s lines fall so closely to Houston’s own troubled life and substance abuse.
On the positive side, the film’s highlights include a scene of Houston singing in church, the arena where her music career likely began. She performs the gospel standard “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”
Whether Houston is singing or speaking in Sparkle, her voice, once so magnificent, is husky and low. She’s not at her best. Yet Houston’s rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow” has power and weight. Having it on film is a blessing.
Sony Pictures kept its original late summer release date for Sparkle in place. Even in a not-so-competitive time of year, the movie opened last weekend in fifth place at the box office, earning $11.6 million.
Despite the massive coverage given to Houston’s death in February at 48, it was a modest opening for this modestly budgeted film.
Houston, one of Sparkle’s executive producers, is but a supporting player in this story about Sparks’ title character. The 22-year-old Sparks, a hit recording artist in the years after her America Idol win at 17, makes her movie debut a sweet, natural performance.
Sparkle’s journey to finding the courage to follow her talent and dreams does generate emotion.
It takes nearly the movie’s complete running time, though, before Sparks gets to sparkle. Showing her co-star’s influence upon generations of singers, Sparks’ climactic musical performance in the film recalls the dazzling young Houston during her greatest fame.