Film Review: Sparkle

In this remake of the 1976 cult favorite about a girl group in Harlem, the late Whitney Houston has an incandescent moment as she passes the torch on to the next generation. Too bad it comes at the very end of the movie.

Sparkle, the new version of the girl-group movie of 1976, still centers on the trio Sister and her Sisters, but the setting is now Detroit in 1968, not Harlem in the 1950s. This Sparkle keeps much of the narrative, and is directed by Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom) and written by Mara Brock Akil (TV’s “Girlfriends”), an African-American husband-and-wife team. The late Whitney Houston, also an executive producer, takes the role of Emma, a very protective mother of three young women: Sister (Carmen Ejogo), Sparkle (“American Idol” winner Jordin Sparks) and Delores (Tika Sumpter).

This time around, the women are more empowered, the costumes and routines more polished if not as fun-filled, and the lead, Sparkle, is now a songwriter as well as a singer. Sparkle may be updated for our more enlightened time, but good intentions go off in separate directions; even the 1960s time frame seems extraneous, with dropped-in references to Berry Gordy and peeks at Dr. Martin Luther King on television.

Sparkle opens in a club just as Sister (the Lonette McKee role in the original) is about to go on. We don’t know who she is (maybe the filmmakers watched the original so many times they incorporated the backstory); suddenly she slashes her dress just before going onstage, to make herself look sexier. Like the film at times, the gesture seems contrived. Sparkle also sometimes strains credulity in her role as a stay-at-home, devoted “good girl.” Clearly no second banana, early in the film we see her ambitiously mouthing the words backstage as Sister performs alone.

Sparkle has a supportive boyfriend, Stix (a sweet-natured Derek Luke), who also functions as the group’s manager. He gives pep talks, perhaps more useful for the more tentative original Sparkle (Irene Cara). This Sparkle says, “I want to be greater than Diana [Ross]. I want to be a star,” explaining, “I want to do this for me.” Mike Epps does a clever job with Satin, a slick club owner who gets Sister hooked on drugs and is violent, but who is also made to seem an occasional buffoon. All good for balancing out stereotypes, if not for dramatic structure.

Kudos to Houston for letting herself look ludicrous at times with curlers in her hair, getting unattractively nasty with her girls. We learn that Emma is a fallen soul singer and wants very much to keep her daughters from that life, by way of being devout. Church ritual is her constant motif, with Bible study at home and the minister to dinner. (A family dinner scene with characters representing confrontational sides in a sitcom-like simplicity goes on too long, with the actors left hanging.)

Some of Emma/Houston’s dialogue has a bizarre, eerily predictive quality. She admits, for instance, that she may have passed out on occasion in her earlier life; she also queries one of her daughters, “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale?” But the viewer is not entirely preoccupied with these ironies throughout. And at the end of the movie she absolutely glows, full of pride in her cinematic daughter, admitting, “You always had faith in yourself. Some of us are still trying to find it.” A shot of her clapping in the audience at Sparkle’s concert looks like, well, Whitney Houston, not mean Mom. That’s the real takeaway moment.

Houston also performs (just once)—the gospel song “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” in her husky, emotive manner. Ejogo convinces as Sister, a charismatic performer on stage, and Sparks can really belt it out when it’s her turn. The Curtis Mayfield tunes are energizing as ever, and there are a couple of new numbers by R. Kelly. And nothing beats the hip jutting-out synchronicity as the girls sing out “What Can I Do with This Feeling?”

Yet although we are supposed to be in Detroit, it seems more like Grosse Pointe Farms with a few record stores and little sense of roots or music springing up from the streets. Even setting aside Harlem nostalgia and the cult-classic status of the original film, especially for African-American audiences, Sparkle is like watching a “highlights of” music special strung together by an afterthought-like storyline, albeit one advancing progressive role models.

At Sparkle’s screening, I sat next to an African-American woman who shook her head when the film was over, giving the instant analysis: “It’s too packaged. It doesn’t have soul like the first Sparkle.” Who can top that verdict?