All that Glitters Doesn’t Necessarily Sparkle

“I want to be a star!” Sparkle proclaims early on in the movie — and just like that,  Sparkle launches into another cliché rendition of yet another rags-to-riches musical.

This story, a remake of the 1976 film of the same name, follows a female trio of singers who triumph over all obstacles to find success. But, there’s not much originality. It has too much in common with the 2006 film Dreamgirls: Both feature a star-studded cast playing a talented black girl group desperate to find a place in a Motown-dominated music industry in racially tense Detroit during the late 1960s.

Sparkle attempts to break the mold by diverging from the classic storyline of a group of girlfriends caught up in boyfriend-stealing schemes and fights for the title of lead singer. This time, there are three sisters — the sensual Tammy, aka Sister (Carmen Ejogo); the feisty Delores (Tika Sumpter); and the meek yet talented Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) — who defy their no-nonsense mama, Emma (the late Whitney Houston), while remaining loyal to each other and their quest for fame.

The four female leads do a good job of becoming their characters, even if some (Sparkle in particular) come off as a bit stagnant.

Houston, aided by a raspy drawl and stern expression, does an expert job of portraying the damaged mother who tries to protect her children with constant vigilance.  A favorite moment occurs during her teary rendition of  “His Eye is on the Sparrow.” Although there are none of the crisp, high notes that characterize Whitney’s earlier works, her pipes are still strong, smooth, and easily the most memorable of the cast. Her only solo screams of triumph and makes it easy to overlook the eery similarities between her own life and that of her on-screen daughters.

In her debut movie performance, Jordin Sparks, best known as one of the most successful American Idol winners, portrays the timid Sparkle with every soft-spoken word and nervous twitch. However, her character never quite seems to ignite. Her baby-like whisper and childish rambling never fades, even as she takes various steps to win back both her career and her independence. The moment that she best resembles a confident diva worthy of top billing is during her final performance of  “A Broken Wing.”  Decked out in a gorgeous red number, she croons to an enthusiastic audience, hits a high note, and then throws her head back to bask in the applause. It is only during times like these, when Jordin’s undeniable singing talent is utilized, that Sparkle seems worthy of the film’s focus.

Carmen, however, is so good at being bad: As the unapologetically selfish Sister, every scene becomes hers. From the first introduction, which shows her using a knife to lengthen her already immodest slit to her last, redeeming sacrifice, all eyes are on her.

Tika also delivers as the assertive, but often forgotten, middle sister. She, surprisingly, draws the most laughs with her curt responses and rebellious attitude.

The two main male characters are as one-dimensional as Sparkle. Stix (Derek Luke), the group’s manager and Sparkle’s devoted boyfriend, remains the good guy throughout. Sister’s fiancé, Satin (Mike Epps) is the typical sinister stock character.

Just as many of the characters fail to fully transform, the musical numbers never seem to fully satisfy, either. While each number seems to help accelerate the plot in some way, the out-of-place slow-motion scenes, paired with the soundtrack of old-school pieces by Curtis Mayfield and a few new ones by R. Kelly, just aren’t danceable enough for today’s audience. This fails to make Sparkle any more distinctive than the typical Motown-inspired period piece.

Bottom Line: If you want to witness Houston’s final performance with your own eyes, definitely make time to see the flick. Besides Ms. Houston’s final bow, there is little you haven’t seen before.

Grade: B-

 Did you see Sparkle? What did you think of the movie?

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