Sparkle is a remake of a 1976 film about a girl group breaking into the music business, but it’s cobbled together so generically that it might as well be a remake of every other movie on that subject. Only two things distinguish it from, say, a straight-to-DVD Dreamgirls or Glitter sequel: it has an “American Idol” winner in the lead, and it has Whitney Houston in a supporting role as her drunk, washed-up, cautionary tale of a mother. But it’s so dumbly on-the-nose that she actually uses the words “cautionary tale” to describe herself. This is the second most embarrassing thing to happen to Whitney Houston this year.
This sluggish melodrama, set in Detroit in 1968, has 2007 “Idol” winner Jordin Sparks as Sparkle Anderson, a shy 19-year-old songwriter whose Motown-y tunes are perfect vehicles for her fame-hungry older sister, whose name is Sister (Carmen Ejogo). (As far as I can determine from the information provided within the film, Sister and Sparkle are the girls’ given names.) Sister went to New York to seek her fortune a while back but, in the words of a family friend, New York “spit her back out.” Now she’s at home with Sparkle, their other sister Dee (Tika Sumpter), and their church-going, God-fearing, utterly demolished mother, Emma (Houston).
Prodded by an up-and-coming talent manager named Stix (Derek Luke) who saw Sister sing at an open-mic night, Sister and her sisters form a group called Sister and Her Sisters. Dee has college plans and Sparkle fancies herself more of a songwriter and back-up singer than a star, but Sister is in it to win it. She ruthlessly pursues wealth and glamour, casually dumping her broke but earnest boyfriend (Omari Hardwick) for a flashy, rich entertainer named Satin (Mike Epps), who promptly gets her hooked on drugs and beats her up, as is customary.
All of this happens against the wishes of Emma, a former singer who knows firsthand how brutal the music industry can be and doesn’t want any part of it for her daughters. She had three babies by different fathers and suffered untold bouts with alcoholism and whatnot, and Sister is only too eager to throw her poor parenting choices back in her face. When Sister claims she had to help raise Dee and Sparkle because Emma was unconscious in her own vomit, Emma’s defense is that, sure, she’s been drunk many times, “but you’ve never, ever seen me laying in my own vomit!” SO YOU TAKE THAT BACK, YOU LIAR!
Houston’s presence in the film was always going to make us think of her real-life troubles, of course — that was surely part of the motivation in casting her — but her death six months ago changes the effect from “poignant” to “ghoulish.” No longer are we viewing a woman who is bowed but unbroken, one who has been through the wringer but may yet emerge triumphant. Now we’re watching a woman who lost. Her speaking voice is hoarse and quiet, though her musical number (clearly wedged into the film just to give her one) presents a singing voice that’s nearly as powerful as ever.
Houston’s acting is neither good nor bad enough to be worth mentioning — but she’s better than Jordin Sparks, who celebrates her thespian debut by mousily delivering dull lines in a meek voice. She’s a terrific singer; she’s just not an actress. And despite being the title character, she’s seldom the movie’s primary interest. In fact, the interminable middle section is devoted to Sister’s overly familiar rise and fall, amusingly condensed and simplified by Mara Brock Akil’s by-the-numbers screenplay. One moment Satin is suggesting cocaine to Sister, who is nervously reluctant; literally five seconds later, in the next scene, a coked-up Sister is stumbling into a rehearsal with powder on her nose. Things go downhill from there. Carmen Ejogo does her best not to seem like a Lifetime Original Movie character, but there’s only so much she can do when she’s required to explain her need for cocaine with the line “Sister can’t fly on one wing.”
Directed by Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom), who’s married to the screenwriter, Sparkle has occasional moments of dramatic interest, including a dinner-table scene where Emma butts heads with Satin. But most of the film is meandering and murky, full of cliches, histrionics, and implausibilities. Nobody has much screen presence, and once Sister’s tale is concluded and we get back to Sparkle, it’s hard to guess when, if ever, the directionless story will end.