While it will more likely be remembered as the final film that famed singer Whitney Houston ever acted or sang in rather than as a potential star vehicle for current pop diva Jordin Sparks or as a remake of the 1976 film of the same name, there’s enough to like about Sparkle that makes it easy talk about more than just the now tragic figure at the heart of it. There’s definitely some problems with the film, but overall Salim Akil’s film is a lovingly crafted period piece that isn’t afraid to shy away from some decidedly dark thematic material in ways that few American made inspirational dramas bother to attempt.
In 1968 Detroit, a young woman named Sparkle (Sparks) has been writing songs destined to be hits for her knockout, masterful performer older sister (aptly named Sister and played by Carmen Ejogo) despite having a perfectly good voice on her own that she’s too afraid to use thanks to the influence of her bible thumping reformed bad girl mother (Houston). At the egging on of a music manager that’s sweet on Sparkle (Derek Luke), Sparkle and Sister form a trio with their med-school bound sibling (Tika Sumpter) in hopes of landing a recording deal. It seems like the sky is the limit until Sister starts getting heavy into drugs thanks to her abusive stand-up comic lover (Mike Epps) and Sparkle is faced with the decision between staying a good, docile daughter or following her true dream of becoming a superstar.
Despite only having one or two really show stopping musical numbers (which was the case in the original film despite the input of Curtis Mayfield and here despite production by R. Kelly), the cast and Akil’s attention to detail and emotion make the film really sing. While it might be tempting to sanitize what was a decidedly politically incorrect time comparatively for modern audiences, Akil sticks to his guns and never shies away from little details like people smoking in restaurants, open and intelligent conversation about the roles of black people in 1960s America, closet drug use, and people drinking and cussing in ways that people just don’t do anymore. For the first hour and fifteen minutes or so, before things become a bit more standardized and pat, Sparkle looks and feels wholly authentic.
As a lead, Sparks still has a bit of a way to go in terms of acting ability, but it almost lends more credibility to a character that’s struggling to find her own voice. She also has wonderful chemistry with Luke as a love interest and is even better with Sumpter and Ejogo as sisters. The trio has a wonderful push-and-pull dynamic that acts as the true heart of a film that’s sometimes purposefully hard to take and difficult to watch. They love, joke, bicker, and fight in a way that only loving siblings could, and when Sister begins her rapid fall from grace the group dynamic just gets better and better. These are fully fleshed out and interesting characters that are easy to be drawn in by.
It’s impossible to not talk about Houston’s swan song even though she tends to blend into the background of the film until her character is absolutely needed. On screen she definitely looks and sounds like someone who wasn’t doing all that well, and her delivery seems a bit lethargic at times, but as a character who describes herself almost too chillingly as a “cautionary tale,” it definitely fits. She also gets a moment show off her legendary voice one final time in a church, and she even has a chance to briefly show off her comedic and dramatic sides, but the movie ultimately doesn’t belong to her in any way. For a singer who only really acted part time, it’s a fitting send off to her big screen career.
The film really and truly belongs to Mike Epps, though. He’s actually good enough to seriously think about in terms of awards consideration for a Supporting Actor nomination come the end of the year. His take on the role of Satin Struthers – a black comedian that’s made a fortune shilling to white audiences – marks a career best for the actor in a complete and total wash. Epps fully embodies a slickster that has a penchant for eccentricity (he has an inexplicable albino bodyguard) and overcompensation (he flat out steals Sister from another far more stable man) that constantly masks something far darker. He displays wide range as a man full of nervous tics that eerily signal that he could snap at any given moment. It’s a dazzling display from someone who has never had to go that deep before and the movie roars to life whenever he’s on screen.
The film doesn’t start to get problematic until about an hour and fifteen minutes in following a plot twist that again feels remarkable because it covers territory few films go into these days. Once the big twist gets out of the way, though, this film’s biggest error becomes wildly apparent. The film has spent so much time focusing on a genuinely interesting group dynamic and some phenomenal performances from the supporting cast, that it has completely forgotten the point of the story in the first place, which is to ultimately chronicle Sparkle coming out of her shell and becoming a star.
Once the film becomes a standard inspirational melodrama, it loses considerable momentum. It’s still passable entertainment, but it starts to become forced and dangerously corny just before the very final scene, which is a real shame since the rest of the film didn’t pull any punches. It’s also where Sparks’ inexperience in a leading role starts to become a bit too apparent, luckily Derek Luke factors heavily into the final act to give her something stable to play off of.
While the final third or so of Sparkle doesn’t quite work, the wall to wall selection of killer Motown hits, tight direction, and a handful of great performances elevate it to a level of true admiration. There’s plenty to like about it, just not enough for it to ascend to a true level of greatness.
Cast: Whitney Houston, Mike Epps, Jordin Sparks
Directed by: Salim Akil
Top image: A scene from Sparkle. Courtesy Sony Pictures.