By Wilson Morales
When it was first announced that a remake of the 1976 urban classic film Sparkle was greenlit, many were gasping with little fanfare. After all, this is a film that made a star out of Lonette Mckee, Philip Michael Thomas, and gave Irene Cara another star vehicle after ‘Aaron Love Angela.’ The thing that also stood out about the original was the emotional impact the story left with the audience. While it was melodramatic and campy, audience couldn’t get enough. The last impression was always the music, which was scored by the great Curtis Mayfield, with Aretha Franklin’s voice on the soundtrack.
Cut to the 2012 version that Salim Akil directed from a script from his wife Mara Brock Akil and what we have is an improved, but not great, film that adds layers to the film that the original did not have. With a trio of ladies (American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, Tika Sumpter, and Carmen Ejogo) who haven’t had much exposure on the big screen, and the return of the Whitney Houston, who hadn’t appeared in a big film in over 10 years, this ‘Sparkle’ shines for its powerful performances by Houston, Ejogo, and Mike Epps, who nearly steals the entire film. The film is still formulaic, but there’s enough material to have an enjoyable evening’s entertainment.
Set in Detroit during the 60s, a trio of girls, Sparkle (Sparks), Delores (Sumpter), and Sister (Ejogo) are hoping to win some money at a talent show based on songs that Sparkle has written. Seeing that there are too many girl groups doing the same thing, Sister exposes her sexuality to grab the crowd’s attention. With talent scout Stix (Luke) looking for that break that make him a name, he wants Sparkle to get her sisters to trust him to get them to the highest places. In doing so, the girls succeed but not without some stumbles and sacrifices.
Sister leaves her boyfriend Levi (Hardwick) for the dangerous comedian Satin (Epps), who in turn, introduces her to a life of domestic violence and drugs. Headstrong and more like their mom Emma (Houston), Delores is the protector of the three. Fiesty, combative and ready for medical school, she wants to make sure her sisters are taken care of. Having seen a lot of ups and downs in her life, Emma doesn’t believe that her girls are ready to be out on their own and strongly advises against their dreams. When egos are bruised and the situation in their lives gets intense, will Sparkle’s spirits be lifted or will she wallow in depression?
Taking nearly half of the storyline out from the source material, this updated version brings more dimensions to each of the characters as opposed to the one-note performances given in the original film. Making her film debut, Jordin Sparks is okay. She doesn’t dazzle the audience with her acting, but when she sings, she holds your attention. One of the flaws in the film is that romance that was highlighted in the original between Cara and Thomas is gone in this film. There’s no passion or chemistry between Sparks and Derek Luke. While Luke is charismatic as Stix, he seems more like a big brother than a lover.
As the middle sister Delores, Sumpter is given more to do here than Dwan Smith. Just as feisty and independent, Sumpter gives her character more depth. We needed more screen time of her. As for Carmen Ejogo, she, along with Mike Epps, are the breakouts of the film. While she’s played a couple of supporting roles over the years, and is better known as the wife of Jeffrey Wright, she clearly establishes herself here and gave just about a great performance as Lonette Mckee did. Folks may question the way her storyline was handled, but will universally agree that Ejogo knocks it out the park. People always say that comedians make the best actors, especially when they can turn off the charm and show another side to the talent. That’s what we get with Mike Epps. While the charm is not off completely since he’s playing a comedian, but when he goes dark all and Ike Turner like, Mike’s at his best.
All will agree that Whitney Houston, who died earlier this year, gave just as much as she could and went out on top. Her character is more overprotective than the way Mary Alice played it, and Houston gives in a solid performance. Her vocal range isn’t the same as it was when she was in ‘The Bodyguard,’ but when she sings the emotional song ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow,’ you can bet that no dry eye will be in theater.
After directing the romantic comedy ‘Jumping the Broom,’ and now this period piece, its safe to say Salim Akil is more than ready to tackle any genre and take on more projects. With this coming-of-age film, we get despair, confidence, and lifted spirits. Credit screenwriter Mara Brock Akil for adding in some of the Motown era with the Detroit setting. Purist fans of the original may quibble a bit at the changes that were brought in, in particular scenes that blend in a dose of ‘Dreamgirls,’ and some ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It,’ but if you want to see new talent on the screen, good music, Whitney Houston’s last film, and be entertained, go see Sparkle!