The remake of the 1976 B-movie classic "Sparkle" is the first starring role for American Idol-winner and pop singer Jordin Sparks. And in it - a star is born. But not the one of whom you be thinking.
While the title is the name of Spark's character, a sweet-natured and mousey momma's girl with a talent for writing songs, the real star of the film is Carmen Ejogo, who plays Sparkle's sister Terry, otherwise known as "Sister."
Set in the late 1960s, the story of "Sparkle" is a familiar one: kind of a "Dreamgirls"-lite. "Sparkle" is about three sisters: Sparkle (Sparks), Sister (Ejogo) and Dolores (Tika Sumpter), who live with their cold, overprotective and overbearing mother, Emma (Whitney Houston.) But late at night when Emma has zonked out, Sparkle and Sister sneak out to the local Detroit clubs so Sister can sing Sparkle's original songs, despite Sparkle having a strong enough voice to sing them herself.
When the two are spotted by a manager-to-be named Stix (Derek Luke), he not only tracks the sisters down but also takes a liking to Sparkle herself. After they sneak off on a date, he convinces Sparkle to gather up her sisters and become a singing group "better than Diana [Ross]."
After a few rough patches, the trio does become a popular local act, but when the emotionally needy Sister is seduced by a famous comedian named Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), her world turns sour. She becomes estranged from her mother and argumentative with her sisters, then descends into drug use, largely because of the abusive Struthers (whom she marries). When the trio has a shot at a major record contract, Sister’s issues sabotage their hopes.
"Sparkle" isn’t the most original story; it suffers from a been there/done that feeling. Fortunately, that is easy to shake off. The actors are the best things about the film. While Sparks is clearly a novice, she acquits herself fairly well. Sumpter as the sassier sister is a treat, although her screen time is limited. Epps is appropriately slimy as the man who destroys the lives of those around him, and Luke plays the faithful good guy with sincerity.
That brings us to Houston. Highly touted as her last screen performance, Houston (who produced the film) is actually quite good in her role as the domineering mother whose troubled past informs how she treats her daughters. It’s a nicely controlled performance, never overarching or steely, but with a hardened regality and weariness that plays into the character. By the end, her portrayal did become a bit one-note however, and she only gets to show a softer side to her character in the final moments. As expected, she dazzles us a version of the spiritual "His Eye is on the Sparrow," sung in a church setting. It’s a nice reminder that she was once a superstar, and one wonders if she could have made the comeback many wished she would have.
But it is Carmen Ejogo that is the revelation here. While she has had a successful and honored career so far, her recognitions have been in isolated award categories that aren’t as mainstream as say, the Emmys or the Oscars. So with that said, I watched the film wondering just who this woman was. Why? Because she is outstanding. Ejogo is truly the star of this film as it is her character that goes through the most and her struggles are what affect the entire story. Even though the film is called "Sparkle," it really is "Sister’s" movie all the way. And she is fantastic. While I don’t think the film will be remembered come Academy Award season, Ejogo gives an Oscar-worthy performance that deserves to be recognized. She’s that good.
As directed by Salim Akil ("Jumping the Broom"), the film is well-directed and avoids falling into cheesiness or campiness. While a few moments of unnecessary slow-motion verge on being chuckle-worthy, this is a faithful and earnest retelling of the original screenplay by Joel Schumacher and Howard Rosenman. That said, the script by Akil’s wife and filmmaking partner Mara Brock Akil is what is problematic. Perhaps things were edited out or maybe it didn’t seem necessary to be that realistic, but there are challenging elements that stick out. For example, when the girls first become local sensations, they still have to rush home to get into bed before their mother wakes up from (what appears to be) an alcohol stupor. In fact, it takes months before mom discovers the girls are a singing group after seeing them on television. Did they not wonder that their mother might actually watch this program? Did they not consider that their show advertisements were plastered all over the city and someone they know would most likely see them? A big deal is made out of their church-going, so one suspects that some members of their congregation would also be frequenting clubs and shows around Detroit - especially Aretha Franklin!
At times the scenes would cut from one to another with a character’s emotional state changing from moment to moment. Sad in one scene, they are perfectly fine in the next. A side-plot about mom Emma having to visit the local preacher late at night because of a problem with "the books" seemed to imply there was a secret relationship there, but that is never explored. It’s simply used as a way to get some of the characters alone in the house without mom around. Similarly, a nosebleed during the finale comes out of nowhere and is used only to get Sparkle out of a fashion emergency. Where was the set up that she normally gets nosebleeds? As it stood, I half wondered if she started doing cocaine like her sister. A character named Levi (Omari Hardwick) is abandoned early on only to reappear in a key scene with Satin, yet the fact that we have no idea what happened to him for an hour and how he has clearly achieved some success he didn’t previously have, makes the scene lack the punch it deserves.
It’s these bits of awkwardness that could have easily been fixed and that give the film a lack of polish. Perhaps there is a longer cut somewhere that ties all of these things together. Although at 119 minutes, the film felt like it had about 12 endings anyway, so brevity was ultimately key.
Given all of this, though, "Sparkle" is an entertaining and charming film that had my attention and kept me invested throughout. In fact, despite its problems I really really liked it. Some might expect it to be unintentionally funny or campy, but in fact, it’s a pretty well made film. Audiences will certainly fall for it, and while Sparks’ future as a film star isn’t certain, she does get to "sparkle" toward the end.
Now someone please make Carmen Ejogo a star.