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August 19, 2012

We come at last to Whitney Houston’s final screen appearance. While this remake of the 1976 film that launched Irene Cara to stardom may have started out as a vehicle for Jordin Sparks, since Houston’s death three months after filming wrapped, Sparkle has taken on a larger significance. And it serves as a fitting tribute to her memory; maybe a bit too fitting at times.

It’s the middle of the 1960s, at the height of both the civil rights movement and the burgeoning popularity of Detroit-based Motown records. Also based in Detroit are the three singing Williams sisters: Sister (Carmen Ejogo), Delores (Tika Sumpter), and Sparkle (Sparks). Sister is the natural showgirl, having just returned from a failed attempt to make it big in New York City. Delores is the smart one, trying to get into medical school. And Sparkle is a gifted songwriter, though she doesn’t think she has it in herself to become the star she wants to be. It doesn’t help that the girls’ mother, Emma (Houston), has had some bad experiences of her own with the entertainment business, and would rather Sparkle hide her light under a church basket.

But that doesn’t stop Sister and Sparkle from sneaking out so Sister can sing one of Sparkle’s songs at an open-mic night, where they catch the eye of aspiring manager Stix (Derek Luke). Soon enough they pull Delores in to form a girl group: Sister and her Sisters. And from there it’s off to the races. They get gigs and exposure; Sister takes up with local black television comedian Satin Struthers (Mike Epps) as Sparkle’s romance with Stix blossoms. But, as Emma would tell her girls, fame sometimes might come at a price higher than you’re willing to pay.

The story is melodramatic, true, but this is a musical after all, and they do tend to skew that way. And besides, even melodrama can be done well in the right hands. Screenwriter Mara Brock Akil adapts Joel Schumacher’s original script and infuses Sister’s arc with what can only be seen as overtones of all the divas-in-trouble stories we’ve heard about in the last thirty years: Tina Turner, Rihanna, and of course Whitney Houston herself. Sparks may have the title role, but Ejogo is the real core of this adaptation. I admit I haven’t seen the Sam O’Steen version, but it seems impossible for it to have had the frank perspective Akil’s modern script brings not only on abusive relationships, but on the interrelationship between race and entertainment in the 1960s.

Houston does get a song in the movie: a rousing cover of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”, made famous by Academy Award-nominee Ethel Waters. But really this is not her film, it’s Sumpter’s, Ejogo’s, and Sparks’, as they nail the sound of girl-group-era singing on Curtis Mayfield’s original compositions from the 1976 version. And as Sparkle strikes out on her own, Sparks more than proves herself with R. Kelly’s new — and much more contemporary — compositions.

Director Salim Akil brings a gentle, sympathetic eye to bear on a talented cast of actors and singers. The story may be familiar, but it’s not dumb or trite. All things considered, what a way to go out.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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