Just when the movie remake fatigue settles in, a reboot comes along that updates a classic tale, without cheapening it.
Written by Mara Brock Akil (creator of “The Game” and “Girlfriends”), and directed by her husband, Salim Akil ( who also directed “Jumping the Broom” and “The Game”), the 2012 update of the 1976 blaxploitation classic “Sparkle” gutted the original storyline and sped up the pace.
Set in Motown-era Detroit instead of Harlem, this version of “Sparkle” still centers around three sisters chasing three very different dreams. Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is an aspiring songwriter too afraid to sing her own lyrics, so she enlists her older sibling, Tami a.k.a. “Sister” (Carmen Ejogo) to hit the stage at the Detroit Discovery Club for her.
Her performance grabs the attention of Stix (Derek Luke), a wannabe talent manager who just got into town. He is staying with his cousin, Levi (Omari Hardwick), who quickly fills him in on the deal with the Williams sisters. They would make the perfect girl group — the women are pretty and can sing — but their crazy mother Emma (Whitney Houston) would never allow it.
Stix doesn’t plan to give up easily. It is 1968 in Detroit. A girl group seems like a cheap ticket to success. When Sparkle and Tami shrug him off after the performance, he goes on the chase. Levi is happy to help. He’s had his sights on Tami for a while.
The film is more fast-paced, doing away with the long montages that weighed down the ‘70s film. While it does stray from the original story line quite a bit — for example, Satin Struthers (Mike Epps) is a hotshot comedian instead of a thug — it keeps the plot moving along and makes it fresh.
Although not as narcissistic as Lonette McKee’s Sister, Ejogo’s Tami also believes her looks are her ticket out of struggle. She’s got a low paying job as a salesgirl, and no hope in sight. She joins the group hoping to make enough money to leave Emma’s home for good.
Enter Satin Struthers. He is able to woo Tami away from a livid Levi by flashing a little cash, but Tami quickly has to decide if she is willing to pay the price for her new life.
Dolores (Tika Sumpter), the middle sister, agrees to join the group to save up cash to attend medical school. In the original, Dolores flees Harlem by attending some unnamed black school, not wanting to end up like her mother, a housekeeper who travels two hours each morning to work for a white family, the Gerbers. This time around, Dolores is chasing higher education from the beginning, and her mother pushes her.
Perhaps, the Akils believed a 2012 audience wouldn’t be able to relate to that Ann Petry-esque story line of an absent mother who spends most of her time ironing clothes for a living. Instead, Emma has a host of different issues.
A failed singer, Emma pulled herself out of depression and turned to church. Unfortunately for her daughters, her renewed faith made her overbearing, and perhaps a bit crazy.
That line from the preview about bringing home “a baby you can’t feed” is just the tip of the iceberg. In Emma’s house, church attendance is mandatory, TV time is limited, and both singing professionally and fraternization with the opposite sex are strictly prohibited. She doesn’t care that all of her children are past 18-years-old. They can abide by her rules, or they can leave.
Emma’s character isn’t the only one that gets a modern face-lift. Sparks’s Sparkle — pun completely intended — will resound with today’s moviegoers far more than Irene Cara’s would. This Sparkle, though still insecure, is creative and ambitious. Although Stix sets things into motion as her boyfriend/manager, she does not need him to define and mold her dreams. It will speak better to a generation of black women taught to get their own.
Making 1960s Detroit the film’s backdrop was also a smart move. The Williams sisters are chasing more than a string of amateur nights that lead up to a fairytale demo record, like they do in the first film. From the very beginning, they are dreaming bigger: shows at The Fillmore, opening for Aretha Franklin. The nightclubs they perform in aren’t shady bars with slick-tongued emcees, but polished and glitzy hot spots that A&R reps use like fishing ponds.
My only issue with this film is the Sparkle/Stix relationship. There was very little chemistry between Derek Luke and Jordin Sparks, making their on-screen kisses look like part of an awkward game of spin the bottle. I found myself wanting their scenes to end so that we could get back to the meatier story.
The best part? Seeing a healthy, glowing Whitney Houston on screen. It is bittersweet, because we know this will be the last new work we see from her — unless there are some unreleased tracks waiting around — but in this project, she shines.
“Sparkle,” starring Jordin Sparks, Derek Luke and Whitney Houston hits theatres Friday.
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