In the last role of her abbreviated life and career, Whitney Houston plays the family matriarch in Sparkle, portraying a woman quite contrary to the one that her tattered legacy left for fans. As the strict, churchgoing mother of three grown girls in 1968 Detroit, Houston is assured, confident and clear-headed, showing off the natural charisma that marked the majority of her illustrious musical career. No sputtering diction, no sweaty, shaky vocals. Just a crisp shadow of the older woman she could have been.
That’s the unexpected emotional draw of Sparkle, with Houston a strong supporting player as the rigid Mama Emma. The leads are Emma’s daughters (Jordin Sparks, Tika Sumpter, Carmen Ejogo), a singing trio of varying education and ambition, trying to make it as a headline act in a pop music world that, at the time, was equally embracing both Aretha Franklin and Cream. Sparkle—named after Sparks’ character—may look like a Motown music drama from a distance, but that’s a melodic mirage. Director Salim Akil’s (Jumping the Broom) film is really a standard tale of family discord, with music as a springboard.
That works well for Sparks, who occasionally oversells her part but nails it when belting one out, and it fits Houston like a glove. In the film’s first meaty conflict, oldest sibling Sister brings home a brash, rich comedian (Mike Epps) for Sunday dinner. Rudeness surfaces; insults fly. As Emma, Houston reprimands her daughter for calling out mom’s past indiscretions, her drinking, her “lying in her own vomit.” Akil may be trying to jerk tears from the scene’s dissolving relationship, but the real heartbreak exists in the awful and poignant irony of Houston’s dialogue (written by Akil’s wife, TV creator and screenwriter Mara Brock Akil.)
And when Houston sings well, it’s pretty fantastic, even for someone who doesn’t particularly fawn over her style of music. Perhaps it’s because she’s in a church, where humility and gospel hit the right notes. Maybe it’s because we’re seeing the last of Houston’s passion for song, and her talent for singing. Regardless, it’s a warm, wholly unexpected highlight of Sparkle, inspiring respectful clapping from some audience members in the movie theater.
The larger world of Sparkle hits all the compulsory aspects of an entertaining, trying-to-make-it story, sometimes too predictably. Sparkle is a genius pop songwriter (yes, it’s “her gift”) destined for the background. Sister is the manipulative, sexy siren who knows how to work it on stage. And Dee (Sumpter) is along for the ride until it’s time for medical school. The thinly drawn characterizations feel better suited for a juicy TV movie than a big feature film.
Except Sparkle never really gets big. It pretends to. For a film about such turbulent times and historic music, Sparkle is awfully insular. Akil briefly shows us Martin Luther King Jr. interviewed on TV and references Aretha, but we never see the larger world. The focus remains on our fictional characters, making the entire endeavor feel more fictional than it probably should. And the added drama of drug use and physical abuse exists as story catalyst rather than reality shot.
According to press notes, Whitney Houston and producers had worked a dozen years to bring Sparkle to the screen, remaking the 1976 original (one of the only movies directed by legendary editor Sam O’Steen). If Houston had taken only her executive producer credit, the final result would have been a respectable, well-made, well-worn story. Having stepped in front of the camera, Houston adds much more—a constant reminder of the tragic person she became, and of the smart, engaging entertainment persona she once was.
Director: Salim Akil
Writer: Mara Brock Akil
Starring: Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick, Cee-Lo Green, Curtis Armstrong
Release Date: Aug. 17, 2012