Sparkle is the big-screen acting debut of an American Idol winner with clichéd dialogue and forgettable musical performances.
No, no, this one is about an all-girl group struggling to hit the big time in the 60’s starring an American Idol alum as the background singer who finds fame of her own.
Oh man. Let’s start again.
Sparkle is a remake of the 1976 film of the same name about three sisters who form a singing group. Oldest sister, Sister (Carmen Ejogo–I was relieved to learn that her character’s birth name is actually Tammy, not Sister) has already tried her hand at fame and fortune in New York City, and returned home after failing at it. Dolores (Tika Sumpter) is a no-nonsense straight-talker biding her time in the group until she’s accepted into medical school. While Sister is the sexy, charismatic one at the forefront, youngest sister Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is the real talent of the group, since she’s the one that writes all their songs.
The story begins one night when Sparkle convinces Sister to sneak out of the house to an open mic night and perform one of the songs she has written. Sister’s sultry performance manages to upstage cocky club-owner Big Black (Cee Lo Green) who throws his hands up in the air (shoulder-height) in defeat. It also catches the eye of go-getter wannabe manager, Stix (Derek Luke), while Sparkle just catches his eye. Stix soon convinces Sparkle to convince her sisters to try their hand at becoming the next Supremes under his management.
But there is one big obstacle in their way, their mother Emma (Whitney Houston), who has already been down the dark road of fame and came out worn and jaded. Emma runs a strict household and wants her daughters to go to church, study hard, you know, be “good girls” and not end up alone and washed up with three children from three men like her.
Emma is a very heavy sleeper though, and doesn’t realize that the three begin sneaking out every night to perform at various Detroit nightclubs and are soon well on their own path to becoming stars. But they soon learn about those dark side of the business, especially when a famous comedian named
Satan Satin Struthers (Mike Epps) enters the picture and woos Sister with his money and flash. Will fame tear the group and family apart? Will someone get addicted to drugs? Will there be domestic abuse? Will Sparkle ever get the chance to shine on her own? Will this story be any different from the one we’ve already seen a million times?
Before the movie began, there was a trailer for a movie called Battle of the Year starring Chris Brown. In it, Brown gets punched in the face. That was fun to watch.
Couldn’t not mention that.
So, early buzz on Sparkle hasn’t been overwhelmingly positive. Most of it has had to do not with the film itself but with the dark shadow that’s seemed to follow the project from original star Aaliyah’s untimely death in 2001 to Whitney Houston’s own passing earlier this year. Instead of a triumphant comeback for Houston and a star-making vehicle for Sparks, the title “Whitney Houston’s last film” usually precedes any mention of anything else about the movie. See, I just did it myself.
But let’s talk about the good things. If there is one reason to see this movie, it has to be Carmen Ejogo’s performance. The title is “Sparkle” but the majority of the film centers on Sister and Ejogo gets the meatiest parts (I mean that in every possible way as there are countless lingering close-ups of her skin-tight dress-clad body—yes, they’re in the drinking game). I’m trying my hardest not to compare Sparkle too much to Dreamgirls, but it’s difficult because the stories and character arcs are so similar. Where Beyonce struggled in Dreamgirls with the role of sexy but troubled standout Deena, Ejogo shines in Sparkle. She’s fantastic and it’s difficult to take your eyes off her in every scene she’s in. She elevates the trite soap opera-esque scenes and makes them watchable, turning in the best acting performance in the film. And she’s not a bad singer either.
That isn’t to say the rest of the cast doesn’t deliver. The first couple scenes with Jordin Sparks made me a little nervous as they seemed “act-y”, but by the end of the film when she delivers a pretty great monologue to hotshot record producer (Curtis “Booger!” Armstrong) I realized she had won me over. There’s potential there and I look forward to seeing what she can do in future with a little more experience and honing. Tika Sumpter was a great choice as the sassy Delores. Mike Epps, clearly channeling Morris Day, was the perfect villain, especially during the dinner table scene in which he spars with Houston and the family’s reverend (Micheal Beach). That was probably my favorite part of the movie, if only more scenes had been that sharply written.
Finally, there’s Whitney Houston. She really doesn’t get to do much more than glare and lecture, and it’s all a little too morbid to watch at times because of the similarities between her character and the real-life Houston, but I can’t think of anyone better for the part. However, like her song at the end of the film, her performance is good, but not great, a sad reminder of the immense talent that was once there. Still, I’m sure, had she not tragically passed away, her role would have been regarded as an acceptable comeback.
The musical performances are fun, if forgettable, save for a couple show-stopping numbers including “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” (even if you’re not familiar with the original film’s version, I’m sure you remember En Vogue’s cover), Houston’s “His Eye is on the Sparrow” (though as mentioned, while solid, more because of its poignancy as it’s the last time we’ll ever see her sing) and Jordin Sparks’ big finale which reminds us why she won American Idol back in 2007. (Small gripe on that though: The song, which is supposed to be performed live and includes a full orchestra and a back-up choir FADES OUT at the end. Stop doing this movies!! Geez.)
It’s tough to make an overdone, predictable story seem fresh and unfortunately Sparkle is a clear example of just how tough it is. Director Salim Akil seems to follow a formula by the book and anyone who’s ever seen a similar film (or a Behind the Music episode) can guess what’s going to happen next.
Oh my god, the suspense is killing me!!!
The pacing is all over the place. It seems to take forever for the group to get going and once we get to the inevitable rise-to-fame montage, it feels like half the movie has passed. It’s as if screenwriter Mara Brock Akil realized 100 pages into the screenplay that there was still two-thirds of the story left to tell and then rushed over important plot points with little build-up or explanation. Then it slows down again.
Speaking of slowing down, the use of slow-motion for dramatic effect is a trick that works best when used sparingly. It’s relied on much too often in Sparkle, including in two consecutive scenes, and makes those scenes come off more corny than gritty.
Though Sparkle takes place in the late 60’s at the height of Motown, it never quite feels authentic. It’s hard to tell what’s off, whether it be the costumes, the set design, the flashy camera-work or the music (which sounds too polished and glossy at times). I guess it’s a little of each. Maybe that’s why Akil felt the need to include real-life clips of period television shows and music to remind us that LOOK IT’S THE 60’s!!!
“Someday, I’ll be big on iTunes…I mean, I’ll release a record.”
Sparkle is by-the-numbers, predictable, cliché, and overlong, but it has a few moments and while Jordan Sparks shows promise, Carmen Ejogo steals the movie. Wait for cable.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: every time there is an extreme close-up on Sister’s ass.
Take a Drink: every time there is an overuse of dramatic slow-motion.
Take a Drink: every time you wish you were watching Dreamgirls instead.
Take a Drink: every time there is a mention or clip of something from the 60’s to remind you that this movie is set in the 60’s.
Take a Drink: Look, it’s Booger!!
Take a Shot: every time Whitney Houston’s character talks about how she is a cautionary tale (take two when she actually uses the term) and it’s morbid because, well you know…
Last Call: A little more of Sparks singing over the closing credits.