It’s almost impossible not to like Jordin Sparks. Her stunning performances on American Idol’s sixth season instantly won her a place in the hearts of many music lovers, not to mention she’s gorgeous and comes off as exceedingly humble. What’s not to like? Well, with last month’s release of Sparkle, a remake of the 1976 movie of the same name, there is at least one thing. Her acting.
To be fair, I haven’t seen the original version of the movie, so I’m not exactly sure how closely the remake tails the original. But the film’s producers, Hollywood heavyweights Salim Akil and Mara Brock Akil, don’t give Sparks much to work with.The story line centers on Sparkle Anderson (Sparks) and her singing sisters, Tammy (Carmen Ejogo) and Delores “Dee” (Tika Sumpter). The talented young women, reminiscent of ‘50s girl groups like The Supremes, enjoy singing together but are torn by competing interests and an unsupportive mom, Emma Anderson, played by the late Whitney Houston, whose life has been ravaged by the traps and temptations of the music industry. So art imitates life.
Sparkle’s boyfriend and the singing group’s manager, Stix (Derek Luke), encourage her to pursue her dream to be a famous singer, and Sparkle summons the courage to give herself over completely to her craft. But Tammy is more interested in Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), a famous comedian who shows her attention, and Dee has her sights set on medical school.
Tammy’s volatile relationship with Struthers is plagued by drug abuse and violent fights and eventually leads to the loss of a major record deal. This sets in motion a downward spiral for Sparkle and her sisters that culminates in Dee killing Struthers with an iron poker. Tammy takes the rap for Dee and gets jail time, and Dee heads off to med school. Meanwhile, Sparkle is left to figure out what to do with her life.
The turning point comes when Sparkle’s persistence wins her a new meeting with the record executive with whom they’d originally met. She is able to convince him to come see her perform at a solo event (how an unknown artist manages to pull off a formal-attire, sold-out event at a large theater I’ll never know), and what happens next is pretty easy to figure out. Everything works out in the end.
Outside of Sparks’ poor acting, the cast give solid performances, though the characters are flat and uninteresting. That the movie is a period piece adds interesting elements in costumes and setting, but its real attractions are the hip-swaying, finger-popping, head-bobbing soundtrack and the fact that you’re watching Whitney Houston move around on the screen. Even if only a shadow of her former self, she is alive before your very eyes--sort of.
Houston plays a severe but loving, well-intentioned mother. She doesn’t exactly look ill on the screen, but she doesn’t look well either. Her voice is hoarse and raspy and her face puffy, perhaps swollen. I found myself staring at her eyes trying to get a glimpse of the “How Will I Know” Whitney, the “I Will Always Love You” Whitney. But she was nowhere to be found.
Even in the most touching moment of the film—when she hisses out a weak “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and repeats, “I’m free, I’m free”--I couldn’t help but be reminded of the tremendous loss of such a great talent. I was hoping the movie would help us celebrate that one-of-a-kind vocal gift, but instead, her role in the movie is simply sad.
Overall, the movie is sweet; it met my expectations. They weren’t high. Do I recommend you go see it? Yes. But only because we all need to snap our fingers and bob our heads to the music of 1950s girl groups every now and then.
Stephanie Morris-Graves is a publicist, freelance writer, and graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. She lives in the Dallas area with her husband and their two children.