Ann Hornaday reviews 'Sparkle'
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, August 17, 2012
A sudsy, eye-catching bauble that should have been a pop-infused piece of escapism but instead turned into an unwitting elegy, “Sparkle” arrives freighted with more than its share of expectations. A re-make of the beloved 1976 musical starring Irene Cara (and, not incidentally, featuring the music of Curtis Mayfield), the updated version will forever be known the final screen appearance of Whitney Houston, who died in February during post-production.
While “Sparkle” doesn’t give the audience a lasting memory of Houston’s voice at its most soaring, it does manage to provide a lingering sense of loss, mixed with celebration and grim irony. Houston plays the disapproving mother of a daughter who longs to make it big as a singer; in a role that plays like a cautionary mirror version of Houston’s own fatal battles, she warns against the depredations of an entertainment industry that indulges and exploits young talent just as intently as it nurtures it.
Happily, though, Houston’s presence in “Sparkle” isn’t maudlin or discomfiting. She even has some wonderfully amusing scenes as Emma, the tight-lipped, kerchiefed martinet whose Saturday-night refrain to her girls is always the same: “Curl your hair. Go to bed. Church tomorrow.”
Whether they listen is another story. As “Sparkle” opens, in Detroit in 1968, Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and her little sister Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) have snuck out to a nightclub where Sparkle has convinced her sister to sing one of the songs she’s written. (And yes, that’s Cee Lo Green in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him early cameo.)
In the course of Sister’s vamping, bombshell debut, she and Sparkle attract the attention of a newbie manager named Stix (Derek Luke), who eventually will persuade them to try for the big time; even Sister and Sparkle’s level-headed sister Dee (Tika Sumpter) will agree to don all manner of sequins, wigs and eyelashes-out-to-here in an effort to help Sparkle achieve her dreams. One of the film’s most satisfying moments is when Dee -- who has taken sharp note of the changes sweeping black culture in that era -- abandons her processed bob for a chic, close-cropped natural cut.
Fans familiar with the original -- or any number of backstage showbiz morality tales -- know that plenty of hardship must ensue before inevitable, glitzy triumph. Sister will take up with a no-count comedian named Satin (played with appropriately silky, sinister aplomb by Mike Epps), and Emma -- a former singer herself -- will do all she can to keep her kids from making the same mistakes she did.
But in between the obstacles, “Sparkle” trafficks in the same gorgeous Motown style -- sonic and visual -- that made the original film, and “Dreamgirls” after it, such delectable fun. The pulp melodrama may be slathered on like so much frosted pink lip gloss, but director Salim Akil (“Jumping the Broom”) knows just when to cut it with a dollop of warmth or down-home humor. (The scene in which Sister brings Satin home for Sunday dinner rings with particular flinty honesty about tensions within the African American community.)
The filmmakers have kept Mayfield’s stand-out songs from the original, including “Jump,” “Hooked On Your Love” and “Something He Can Feel,” performed by Ejogo with a sinuous sulk. The tunes contributed by R. Kelly don’t quite hold up, in part because their arrangements feel so jarringly of-this-moment. But Sparks does a terrific job with her big number, a barn burner called “One Wing” on which she holds her own before three backup singers, an orchestra and an enormous gospel choir.
Even when Mara Brock Akil’s script descends into lurid, hackneyed schematics, the performances in “Sparkle” possess verve and seriousness, especially those by Luke (a consistently appealing screen presence) and the attractive main actresses, who judiciously balance earthy focus and divalike fabulosity. For her part, Houston delivers a steady, if muted, rendition of the classic hymn “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” which finds her in dramatically diminished voice but powerful emotional form.
“Sparkle” may have begun as nothing more than a tuneful, diverting nostalgia trip, but it turns out to be a surprisingly poignant swan song.
Contains mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug abuse, some violence, profanity and smoking.