Above being a star vehicle for Jordin Sparks and a remix of a little-known 1976 film of the same name that predated even the Broadway premiere of “Dreamgirls,” “Sparkle” will be remembered mostly as Whitney Houston’s farewell. Otherwise, it’s a sudsy, creaky, patently predictable showbiz melodrama, and yet it acceptably works on the level of entertaining corn.
In 1968, Detroit, meek 19-year-old Sparkle Anderson (Jordin Sparks) has a passion for songwriting. One night at the Discovery Club, her sexy, confident older sister named Sister/Tammy (Carmen Ejogo) stands up on stage to sing one of Sparkle’s songs, but up-and-coming record-label manager Stix (Derek Luke) catches Sparkle’s eye and sees real talent in her. Sparkle and Sister, along with middle sister Delores (Tika Sumpter), live under the roof of their God-fearing disciplinarian mother Emma (Whitney Houston), who cracks the whip on her three daughters because she used to sing professionally and battled rough times. Egged on by Stix to enter a musical competition, the sisters then go on to break into the Motown music business amidst a dime a dozen of musical acts that rival The Supremes.
“Sparkle” transports from 1958, Harlem to a decade later in Detroit, making for a brighter, more superficial and well-scrubbed version of virtually the same story. Director Salim Akil (2011’s amiable “Jumping the Broom”) gets the period right with the costumes and production design, and makes sure the musical performances are lively and sultry with songs from Curtis Mayfield, as well as R. Kelly. But when it comes to the drama, he overblows it with soap-opera theatrics and slow-motion sequences.
The screenplay by TV writer Mara Brock Akil (the director’s wife) hits all the familiar beats. It’s hard to believe that it takes Emma so long to realize her daughters have been sneaking out under her nose; that all changes when they open for Aretha Franklin one night and Emma awakens from her nap to see them perform on TV. While Sparkle’s follow your dreams! yarn goes where you expect it to, Sister’s rise-and-fall takes up a lot of time. She gets seduced by the spotlight and leaves her boyfriend Levi (Omari Hardwick) for smarmy, not-funny comedian Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), who showers her with gifts and then proposes to her. Sister could be the next Diana Ross, but Satin manhandles his wife with a couple black eyes, gets her hooked on cocaine, and becomes the catalyst for her inevitable downward spiral. This portion of the film just overdoses on Ike-and-Tina-Turner clichÃ©s that lack subtlety or anything deeper than a melodramatic Lifetime Original Movie. With that said, Akil has much more success with the lighter moments, in keeping things moving, and in getting solid performances out of his cast.
Making her feature debut, Sparks has a nice, warm presence and gets to showcase the pipes that made her a winner on “American Idol.” But beyond that, her acting range only goes so far, so this vehicle probably won’t make her a star yet as intended. Luckily, as her sisters, Ejogo heats up the screen and turns in a strong portrayal as the troubled black sheep who looks for success in the wrong places, and Sumpter is a sassy, sparky scene-stealer. Epps is pretty much typecast as another slick hustler but livens things up.Â Also, Cee Lo Green is curiously included on the one-sheet for more name value, but only appears in the opening scene as a singer (or is that “sanger?”).
The late Houston is fine as Emma, whose tragic past comes to the foreground at an awkward dinner with Sister and her new beau and hits pretty close to the truth. “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?” she says. Emma tries sheltering her girls and doesn’t want Sparkle to follow her dream so none of them end up like her. The real-life tragedy of Ms. Houston hangs over the film, and for one last time on screen, the vocally powerful performer belts out “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” at a funeral.
Too earnest and well-intentioned to deserve hate mail, “Sparkle” won’t make it big, but it’s an appealingly modest surprise. This is the kind of inoffensive movie you can wait to enjoy when you’re in bed with the flu.
116 min., rated PG-13.
Grade: B –