Salim Akil’s Sparkle is a perfectly painless, extremely soapy, standard showbiz yarn that’s drawing more attention than it perhaps deserves due to its status as Whitney Houston’s last film. It’s a remake of a 1976 film that seems to have some kind of following, but I can’t address this aspect since I don’t recall even having heard of the original until it was referenced in connection with this movie. I will note, however, that this version appears to be angering no one — even though it moves the story from the late 1950s to 1968, and carries with it an inescapable aura of Dreamgirls. This may — to some extent — be out of deference to Houston, though, in all honesty, the audience I saw it with seemed more interested in the musical numbers featuring the film’s younger cast members.
It should be noted that Houston only gets one song (though she duets with Jordin Sparks on the song over the ending credits) — the gospel hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” Since she plays the mother of Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and Dolores (Tika Sumpter) — the Supremes-esque girl group at the center of the story — Houston’s role is definitely a supporting one. It is, however, a fairly strong one because her overprotective mother character is loaded with backstory details that have a particular resonance to Houston herself. Her character, Emma, is a one-time musical hopeful who was all but destroyed by the industry, drugs and her own weaknesses, and has retreated into middle-class respectability and the church. (I will say I never understood exactly how she became quite as upscale as the film presents.) It’s a role given unintended tragic resonance by Houston’s death — something that hangs over the film in general, but really hits home in moments like the one where she asks her daughters if her life isn’t enough of a cautionary tale to keep them from pursuing a musical career.
The bulk of the film, however, focuses on the girls and their various travails in the effort to attain stardom. There’s nothing even remotely new about any of this (the three leads are rarely more than stock types), but it’s all done with reasonable professionalism, solid performances and a modicum of stylishness by director Salim Akil. That it feels a good bit like a more stylish Tyler Perry movie — especially with Perry regular Tamela J. Mann in the cast — is probably inevitable since Sparkle trades in much the same kind of melodramatics. Yet, it should be noted that Akil has a much lighter touch in many scenes — especially the less dramatic ones — and a much more fluid camera. There are also unusual areas that the film touches, notably in the film’s examination of the brand of “coon” comedy (Akil prefers the term “sambo”) being doled out to white audiences by the repellent Satin (Mike Epps in an uncharacteristic role). There’s also the casual acceptance of white pop culture when the girls watch the British rock group Cream on TV. I can’t think when I’ve seen either of these elements in a movie before.
At no point is this anything like a great movie, but then how many movies are? It is, however, pretty solid entertainment. Yeah, sure, Sparkle’s big show that ends the film is utterly preposterous, but it works on its own merits — and after all, it’s that kind of movie. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking.