This musical melodrama moves like Chuck Berry’s V8 Ford, and is as sleek and sexy as any product that rolled off an assembly line in Motown back in the day. Sparkle is more sophisticated than it needed to be, and more entertaining than most of what’s come out of Hollywood this dreary summer movie season.
Sparkle is the story of three adult sisters living under their strictly religious, middle-class mother’s (Whitney Houston) roof in Detroit in the late 1960s. “Sister” (Carmen Ejogo) is the oldest, just returned home from a failed attempt to “make it” in New York City; Dee (Tika Sumpter, serious and deliciously deadpan) is waiting to hear news of her application to medical school; and Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is just trying to meet her mother’s conservative expectations while composing music and dreaming of being a star.
Sparkle pushes her sisters into performing at open-mic contests around town, ostensibly in order to hear her songs performed live. These live performances are dynamically filmed, and add to the film’s forward momentum. Enter ambitious would-be manager Stix (Derek Luke), who sees the three sisters as an act that could rival the Supremes. He also has romantic ideas about Sparkle.
This is an old-school Hollywood melodrama, done with conviction and a sense of proportion. Will the sisters make it? Will Sparkle and Stix find true love? What do you think?
The role of magnetic older sister Tammy (aka Sister) offers the most opportunities for scene-stealing, and British actress Carmen Ejogo runs with it. She’s cool, self-possessed and entirely aware of—and in total control of—her effect on men. (If this performance doesn’t earn Ejogo a juicy role in a big Hollywood film, Tinseltown is truly doomed.) Tammy’s also wildly self-destructive, and her downfall threatens to overshadow the family drama, Sparkle’s story and the whole damn movie.
In the 1976 version—yes, this is a remake—when the older sister played by Lonette McKee exited the story, so did all audience interest. This time, Sparkle, the character, does. Former American Idol winner Jordin Sparks is naïve and cute without being dumb or cutesy. When her character needs to shoulder the entire weight of the drama, Sparks is up to it.
The sophistication comes in through the character played by Mike Epps, a comedian who has earned wealth and fame in front of white audiences by pandering and exploiting racist stereotypes. There’s an electrifying dinner scene where Houston’s proud-black-woman icon confronts Epps for his “cooning.” Epps’ response is devastating, and the scene goes startlingly deep into the nuances of racism.