Whitney Houston features prominently in Sparkle, and the musical melodrama is all the better for it. The late vocalist and hit-maker shines as a God-fearing matriarch trying to keep her three daughters on the path to respectable success and salvation in 1960s Detroit. Lucky for the film and us, the rest of the cast is up to her level, delivering engrossing performances that elevate this drama above the standard-issue soaper. Also good for us is the music, a set of melodic, soulful tracks written by Curtis Mayfield for the 1976 film version of Sparkle, which starred Irene Cara. These are sexy, seductive songs that sound like they could have been forgotten classics of the era.
As Sister, the eldest and most charismatic of the three talented siblings, Carmen Ejogo looks the part of a singing star from the ’60s. She bears a striking resemblance to Marilyn McCoo, who fronted that period’s Fifth Dimension. Her singing performance during Sparkle’s opening scene is riveting and mesmerizes the nightclub. Among those to witness her talent is Stix (Derek Luke), a young black man who soon convinces Sister, Sparkle and Dolores (all three can sing) to let him be their manager. Sister is the natural frontwoman, while Sparkle writes the group’s songs and helps Dolores (Tika Sumpter) serve as the Supremes to Sister’s Diana Ross.
The ladies, led by Sister’s slinky sexuality, look and sound stunning when they perform. However, their mother, who experienced the underside of the entertainment business during her own attempt at a singing career, strongly disapproves of their choice. She also abhors the sexually suggestive nature of their songs and performances. Of the trio, only Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is driven to succeed in show business, and so she is the one being asked to give up her dream. Sister, who is approaching her 30s, is more concerned with marriage, while Dolores has her mind set on honoring her mother’s wishes and attending medical school. For Sister, a marriage suitor comes in the form of Satin Struthers, a smooth-taking drug dealer and local celebrity played with oily arrogance by Mike Epps. Struthers’ dinner table confrontation with Houston’s Emma is one of the highlights of the film.
American Idol winner Sparks is appealing as the title character. Sparkle is the youngest of the sisters, innocent but able to write tuneful, expressive songs. Her performance may be a bit too controlled — it would have been nice to learn more about what motivates Sparkle — but she plays the part as written well enough to earn our sympathies and rooting interest.
Director Salim Akil fluidly moves the camera amidst stylish sets, creating for the movie an irresistible air of cool. Some artistic choices — such as the decision to tell of civil unrest rather than show it — may disappoint, but there’s something positive to be said for a film that captures a life the way it is lived (which is, to say, not integrated into the highlight reel of history’s significant events). Ejogo, Sparks and Sumpter are all wonderful, but Houston’s performance is the one I suspect most moviegoers will remember. Houston, who is also credited as executive producer, creates a memorable character in her supporting role as a woman who is protective, loving and sure in her beliefs. The film is rightfully dedicated to her, honoring a talent that left this world too soon.