SPARKLE Review

Sparkle is a story we have seen time and time again. In many ways its hard to see the film as a legitimate theatrical release because it feels like something tailored more to the VH1/Sunday afternoon type viewing than it does a night out with friends or a date. We have heard the tale before: struggling musicians just trying to make it in the business with obstacles that range from parents to drugs, to significant others. It doesn't help that Sparkle is also set once again in that late-60's era where Motown was everything and the music industry was a completely different monster than it is now.The idea that we have seen the story before though could be argued with pretty much any movie these days so I will not harp on that flaw as its main weakness. In fact, overall Sparkle proves to be just as entertaining as any Jackson's or Temptations biopic, but with much better acting. There will no doubt be added interest around the film due to the fact it is the last performance from Whitney Houston and while I'm sure she might have preferred to go out on a flashier note, there is something humbling about this supporting role that not only sheds a nice light on the singers legacy but also a willingness to confront those very public demons she was constantly facing. Regardless of if your reasoning for going to see the film though you will find no shortage of melodramatic entertainment. Though it sometimes skewed a little too close to Tyler Perry territory for my taste I was nonetheless wrapped up the music aspect of the story and that is where Sparkle will win you over. Whether it be the appropriately cast Jordin Sparks (for whom this movie is really a vehicle for), the breakout star of it all Carmen Ejogo or Ms. Houston herself, its their voices and soulful songs that will be what truly move you in the end.

Dolores (Tika Sumpter), Sister (Carmen Ejogo), and
Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) mix it up on stage.
I haven't seen the original 1976 film this was based on, but I can guess that much of the music is either taken from that movie directly or inspired by hits of the era in which it was made. If the music is what keeps this new Sparkle afloat it is the the overly played melodrama that pulls it down. What the difference is between real, life-like drama and these soapy situations is how the movie chooses to play them. I would have loved to see a more raw approach to Sparks character and her drive and determination to not simply defy her mother but to continue to push forward with what she wants out of life. Their is ripe opportunity here to introduce the youngins of the tech generation not only to the great simplicity of 60's soul music, but to demonstrate a way of life and how times change, but the essence of people will always seemingly remain the same. Sparkle keeps it too squeaky clean to really dig into the complications of real life though. Sure, there is spousal abuse, drug use, and even death sprinkled throughout the script but even in the most serious of situations I found myself laughing at the way in which director Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom) decided to document such events. Whether it be odd use of slow motion or tracking shots, even the aesthetic choices seemed out of place in moments while others felt nothing short of authentic. It was almost as if they couldn't decide to keep it light in the deeper dramatic moments or to really go for it and instead became stuck in the awkward middle somewhere. In the end, it comes back around to that music that again, if anything, will show the kids of today how heavily their pop stars rely on the music of Motown to continue carrying their hits.

Sparkle is comforted by her mother (Whitney Houston)
before going on stage for her first solo show.
Going into the film I wasn't overly familiar with the territory the film would be covering other than what I imagined it would. unfortunately, it pretty much went down exactly as I expected with a few minor curve balls along the way. One of those curve balls was just how engaged I was by the majority of the cast and how well they were able to convey what was no doubt slightly cheesy on paper. The first surprise comes when we meet Sparkle (Sparks) and her sister known simply as Sister (Carmen Ejogo). As the more outgoing, self-centered of the two Sister has no problem strutting her stuff in front of people to get what she wants. She can sing, for sure, but she has the attitude, the presence to carry a show and to hold the audience's attention. Sparkle is clearly the more shy, reserved one and keeps her passions of songwriting and singing to herself. She wants Sister to perform them, to make them her own and Sister has no problem taking the adoration that comes along with doing so. It is Sparkle that catches the eye of the new guy in town Stix (the always reliable Derek Luke) though. He's an aspiring manager staying with his cousin in Detroit because he knows its the place to be for anyone wanting to be anything in music at that time. Stix sees the potential in Sister but he doesn't really understand what he has until he stumbles upon Sparkle composing her own hits at the piano. The two form a stable and understanding pair. he helps her realize what she wants and he gets satisfaction not only out of loving her but achieving his goals through her. Luke is more than capable at handling this type of material, but it was Sparks I was really interested in seeing blossom. She isn't really required to do much here other than act determined and sing her pretty little heart out though.

That is left to Sister who has the most interesting arc in the film as she is easily seduced by the money fame can deliver but unfortunately goes the most clich├ęd ways possible (drugs, abusive husband, etc.) to slip into the dark side of what she was destined for since her troubled childhood ruined her. Ejogo nearly steals the show every time she is on screen though. Like her counterpart she takes every pair of eyes watching and demands they be on her. I anticipated this being a coming out event for Sparks but it might have just introduced us to a more versatile performer. Then there is the case of Mike Epps. That abusive husband role I've been mentioning is filled by the usually light, comic relief actor that Epps too often turns into. He at least shows some diversity here by swaying back and forth between a light public persona with a monster of a temper when the curtain is pulled shut. The fascinating part about it is how good Epps is at playing the villain, he should try his range more often. Someone needs to give this guy a good, credible, leading role. The remainder of the cast does fine work, but it is the soft spoken but stern mama hen that Houston plays and who is able to wrap it all up nicely in the end that will stay with you the most after the credits have rolled and the last song has been sung.

Stix (Derek Luke) and Sparkle share a night under
the stars together.
While Sparkle drags a little bit in the middle there is enough going on here to get a solid recommendation. Maybe it was the fact I didn't really expect too much going into it, but I rather enjoyed myself in the moment of watching the movie play out. It was a refreshing diversion from what we've seen lately. It plays it safe but the heavily influenced Sunday sermon lessons that run rampant through the whole thing give it a kind of comfy feeling, a kind of spirituality that doesn't feel forced. It is hard to say how much of an impact Sparkle will have, if any, but in many ways I hope that it does considering that if it is indeed a hit the actors that really shine here will not only become bigger stars but be afforded the chance of more opportunities. People will come to see the last performance of Whitney Houston but will leave with an appreciation for the way things used to be and the charismatic turns from Ejogo and Epps. It may or may not add a boost to Sparks career, but she does well enough to earn a hit every couple of years and if she really wants to impress she'll need to find a role that will really challenge her rather than relying on her seasoned vocals to carry her meek persona. For a movie that dips in deep melodrama, delivers feel good, catchy tunes and solid acting it never rises above a certain quality line that I hoped it would. Still, I've clearly had a lot to say about it and in that I can recognize it connected with me on many levels. It may not be the best movie in theaters right now, probably not even the second best, but it well worth your time and you will be nothing if not entertained.