While this remake of the 1976 cult classic focuses on the titular Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) and her sister (Carmen Ejogo), it's hard to ignore the presence of Whitney Houston as the matriarch of the family, Emma. Her screentime is fairly limited, but given that this is her final movie, it makes her a lot harder to ignore. Unfortunately, this is far from her finest cinematic performance; she's very stilted in her delivery throughout, although the crowd that I saw the film with didn't seem to mind. Even her big gospel number wasn't mind-blowing -- just solid, but not chill-inducing. Still, it earned applause from the people in attendance. So for all you devoted Whitney fans out there, go, enjoy and just don't think too much about it... though you'd be better off watching The Bodyguard again. For everyone else? I'd say give this movie a pass, as Jordin Sparks's turn is not going to land her an Oscar, like fellow American Idol alum Jennifer Hudson managed to do with Dreamgirls.
Sparkle (Sparks) is an aspiring songwriter in the '60s in Detroit. She sneaks out of her mother's house to get her sister, aptly named Sister (Ejogo), to perform her tunes in small nightclubs. One night, Sister's sex appeal and Sparkle's singing catches the eye of music manager, Stix (Derek Luke). The duo blow him off, but with some persistence he and his cousin Levi (Omari Hardwick) chase them down at church. Due to their overbearing mother, he has to use bible study as an inroad to get a glimpse of Sparkle's musical talents and then -- even though it's clear she wants to perform her own music but lacks the confidence -- he suggests a girl group with Sparkle and their future medical student sister, Delores (Tika Sumpter) doing backup to Sister's scantily clad lead in a new Motown-style trio.
Sister then catches the eye of local comedienne and the film's resident sleazy asshole, Satin (Mike Epps), and soon she's snorting cocaine and living the high life, while Stix is trying to make them into stars. Of course, Satin may be rich but he's also abusive and this leads to issues with the siblings and with their mother who strongly disapproves of Sister's disrespectful fiancé.
Sparks makes a solid debut, slightly better than you'd expect from your average Idol alum, but not exactly the deeply emotional performance that a trained actress could deliver. But that's the price that this film's director, Salim Akil, probably paid in order to cast a recognizable face who could actually belt out the big notes. (It's similar to the way we're stuck with Katharine McPhee as a lead on Smash.) Ejogo and Sumpter both do a really great job with this predictable material, particular Ejogo who has some of the heavier scenes. Luke is charmingly adorable and is mostly there to schmooze and flirt with Sparks, which he does well. Epps's performance is lacking in many ways, but it's not all his fault, as his character has some terrible lines to work with. It seems unclear if the film really was willing to make him the big bad, as there are confusing moments where he makes sense and we almost side with him, although that could be unintentional. Cee Lo is hyped in the commercials but really only has one scene and he's sweating incessantly throughout it, so the less said about that, the better.
As mentioned before, Houston's performance is awkward, as she's almost smirking while doling out severe punishments, but that's far from the real problem with the film. The biggest issue is the lackluster script and the massive issues with cinematography. The camera was all over the place, with close-ups where there shouldn't be close-ups and oddly focused visuals. It was as if someone just got out of film school and was goofing around with the camera... or if someone's drunk grandma decided to do take it around for a spin.
Even if you've never seen the original film, the themes here (the rise of Motown, the struggles of living in Detroit, physically abusive men in power, single moms wanting the best for her kids and a young girl aspiring to be a star) have all been done ad nauseam and this story isn't bringing much new to the table. And the music, aside from the stand-out song "Something He Can Feel" (which was covered by Aretha Franklin and En Vogue), is less than memorable, despite new tunes by R. Kelly to go along with the old Curtis Mayfield tracks. It's not hard to see why the original film isn't a well-known favorite like the Dreamgirls stage musical or John Waters's Hairspray and this new version isn't likely to find its way into midnight showings any time soon, either.
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