I have never seen the 1976 version of Sparkle, but I am pretty sure it is better than the one that opens in theaters today — mainly because it stars Irene Cara, the quintessential ’80s poster child of angsty song and dance. The 2012 iteration stars American Idol winner Jordin Sparks and the late, great Whitney Houston.
Sparks plays Sparkle (what a coincidence!), a songwriter who just LOVES music. She writes songs for her sister named Sister (again, coincidence!) played by Carmen Ejogo. With the help from the charming Stix (Derek Luke) and against their wishes of their God-fearing mother, they eventually form a singing girl group with their sassy academically ambitious third sister, Dolores (Tika Sumpter). When they get “discovered” all hell breaks loose! Sister gets into drugs and marries a famous, yet abusive husband (Mike Epps); Sparkle gets in over her head when she develops a relationship with Stix and becomes lost in her identity; and the overlooked sister wears her hair naturally! Talk about problems!
Comparisons to Dreamgirls are inevitable for Sparkle, but the comparisons pretty much stop at the fact that each are about girl groups of soul and R&B. Also, Dreamgirls is just a better movie.
I firmly believe that Sparkle is a name that should be reserved for an American Gladiator or a stripper — not a wholesome girl with a sweet face like Jordin Sparks (or Irene Cara for that matter). That said, my presumptions of the movie were already flawed and with each passing minute of watching the movie, it got worse and worse. The movie was like a never ending R. Kelly “Trapped in the Closet”-esque music video that took itself seriously. Way too seriously. It was like the writers and director locked themselves in a room for a weekend and took the original movie and scotch taped and superglued it together with elements of movies like Dreamgirls, Mahogany, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, The Five Heartbeats, Ray, Cadillac Records, Walk the Line, Fame, and every girl group music video from the En Vogue era. In other words, this movie was a big ol’ mess.
I am sure that there is a good story in hear some where. In fact, I know there’s a good story in the movie. Unfortunately, it was executed poorly and with a clumsy hand. I didn’t know who to care about so I just started to not care about anyone. There wasn’t one point in the movie when I was rooting for anyone. Actually, I take that back. I did want to see more of Cee-Lo, whose arms seemed freakishly shorter than usual. Nonetheless, there was this imbalance of perspective with the story. It was as if a sassy 9-year-old black girl was telling the story during recess. There was a lack of focus that strayed from the Sparkle, who should have been the center of the movie. Instead, there is a tug-o-war between the story of her and her sister which just ends up becoming a sloppy puddle of melodrama.
Then there is Whitney Houston. Sparkle is her Xanadu. I’m not saying that this movie was tacky (in fact, the art direction was quite impressive). Instead, much like Gene Kelly took his final bow with Xanadu, Whitney has her last hurrah with Sparkle. Two movies of the same caliber each starring a person bigger than the movie’s boundaries could hold. Her screen time is minimal and her presence isn’t necessarily a reminder of her acting skills, but of her ability to command an audience, bring out the best in others, and, of course, take you to church (literally) with any song.
Despite everything you just read, there are some bright spots in this movie that I genuinely enjoyed. For one, the movie used music from the original movie that was composed by the great Curtis Mayfield. In addition to those, some of the new songs were composed by R. Kelly (which would explain why I felt his Chocolate Factory vibe flowing throughout the movie). I, for one have been singing “Hooked On Your Love” and coming up with some backup singer hand choreography since I watched the movie. Secondly, the movie, if it didn’t have the domestic abuse and drug use, would be wholesome fun for the whole family! Third, Carmen Ejogo is H-O-T AND she has an accent. I’d holler at that. Third, the fashion were pretty damn fancy! The montage of the trio singing in different outfits was quite the spectacle! Lastly, the movie will definitely give a new generation of drag queens some excellent source material for their repertoire in the forthcoming months.
The music may have been good and the actors may have been easy on the eyes, but a lot more could have been done to make this remake more bearable. For starters, it could have given us streamlined storytelling that took us from point A to point B with less tangents and more fluidity and focus. Ultimately this was a movie about soul music that needed more soul.
Sparkle opens in theaters today.