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Review: "Sparkle"

This review was originally published in my column at Towleroad.

Leaving for the theater to see Sparkle, the boyfriend wrinkled up his nose. "Is that that Dreamgirls remake?" he asked rhetorically. He doesn't care about movies (...I know!) so I just said "yes" rather than getting into it. Sparkle, like Dreamgirls before it, does pair an "American Idol" alum in her big screen debut (Jordin Sparks / Jennifer Hudson) with a genuine legend (Whitney / Beyoncé) to tell the story of a troubled female pop trio in 1960s Detroit attempting to make it big as Motown explodes. But the similarities are cosmetic. (Which is not, unfortunately, to Sparkle's benefit. If you're going to load up your screenplay with familiar clichés, rob from superior work!)

The immediate jarring difference between the two films is first noticeable in the Jennifer/Jordin continuum. In both films the biggest talent of the trio has to play second fiddle to "the hot one" but only in the earlier property does the Major Talent bristle mesmerizingly against her runner-up status; Jordin's "Sparkle" is a willing wallflower, happy to let her sister (the crazy gorgeous Carmen Ejogo) sing all of her songs whilst shimmering in the warmth of the spotlight. Sparkle's sister's name is "Sister" and their group is called "Sister and Her Sisters" and the men competing dramatically for their hands (that's a euphemism for vaginas) are named "Stix" (Derek Luke) and "Satin" (Mike Epps). So any moviegoer with a sybilant "S" should avoid all discussions of the movie

The first few reels are all about setting up the game pieces. Sister and Her Sisters have obvious talent which the men in their life hope to either showcase or exploit, depending on how you read the performances. Derek Luke in particular keeps you guessing about which it is for Stix and suggests that the man himself doesn't even always know when he's romancing Sparkle. The first hour is somewhat bland with repetition but scene-stealing cameos from the late Whitney Houston as their very strict bible-studies mama, offer lively punctuation.

♪ Oohhhhh I wanna act with somebody
I wanna steal the scene from somebody ♬ 

You don't have to be a great screen actor to have camera-seizing charisma, and Sparkle knows just how and when to use Whitney. Her late film solo of the gospel classic "His Eye is On The Sparrow" is tough to take in some ways what with her raw staccato delivery proving a marked contrast to her legend (this is the same woman who held that note for that long on The Bodyguard soundtrack?) but no matter; it works for the movie and every single Whitney scene energized the crowded theater. It's almost like every single ticket buyer was there for one reason only. 

Once Sister brings Satin home to meet Mama during Sunday dinner, Sparkle the movie steps up its game. The dinner sequence is compelling in every way that counts for this movie: complex familial dynamics, racially charged politics, and the tug of war between spirituality and sexuality. But just as the movie steps up its game it throws away the game board insisting on being both a terrible movie and a good one simultaneously for the final hour.

my notes on Sparkle -- this is the "One Wing" finale

For every sharply acted sequence like that abbreviated Sunday dinner, there are sequences where the actors just can't act their way out of the cardboard clichés (Jordin Sparks in particular has trouble. She doesn't actively embarrass herself but the most generous thing one might say in terms of acting is "adequate.") For every piece of smart direction like one static overhead shot of Mama walking Sister right out of her house (so much richer in feeling than a series of generic closeups would have been), there are moments where the director Salim Akil just seems to lose control of his camera altogether --most noticeably in two violent climaxes which had the audience I saw the movie with laughing with each use of slo-mo or weirdly affected 'Violent Climax Scoring!' For every beautiful visual touch like a moment in the Jordin's "One Wing" song finale in which the dazzling hard reds of Sparkle's form-hugging gown are backgrounded by soft pink backup girl dresses which are themselves backgrounded by warmly lit white robes of a full gospel choir, there are plentiful bizarre or incoherent visual choices especially the movie's on again off again attempts at "period piece". When Sparkle takes the stage for her concert finale it's almost as if they've left a time machine subplot on the cutting room floor because we're definitely not in the 1960s anymore -- they aren't even pretending anymore.

Finally, Sparkle proves itself no Dreamgirls with the lack of any showstopping musical numbers. That's a difficult weakness to overcome in a movie musical. Still, there's so much rage and lived-in struggle permeating Sparkle's best performances (Ejogo taking top honors) and mother/daughter scenes that the movie almost works. But Sparkle can't help itself. The bombastic uplift of the finale leaves a bizarrely false and bland aftertaste, like you've chased a brutal breakthrough therapy session with a handful of Disney Branded Anti Depressants. Shut out the pain. Replace it with big meaningless vocal runs ["Text 1 (866) IDOLS 06  to vote for Jordin Sparks!!!"] and a blazingly white perma-smile that never falters no matter what the singer is singing about. 

What was she singing about again?

Grade: B/D simultaneously so... C
Oscar Hopeful: I suppose it has an outside shot at Costume Design for two time nominee Ruth E Carter (who also appears in the film) but it's strange relationship to "period piece" will make even that a hard sell. It's best hope undoubtedly lies in Best Original Song but no composer or movie should ever hope for anything in that ridonculous category.

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Reader Comments (15)

Yikes, is Beyonce considered a genuine legend now? I'm not sure I can subscribe to that.

Anyway, this is the kind of movie (musical melodrama) I absolutely adore but I am trying so hard to catch up after being on vacation that I'm not sure I'll get to it for a while. I suspect it'll work just as well on dvd but I do love seeing this type of movie in a theater.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAR

The film should have been called "Sister," b/c Carmen Ejogo pretty much obliterated Jordin Sparks off the screen. It was to the point where the momentum was all but shot by the time the "title" character Sparkle's storyline gets going. I'll give Jordin credit for coming a long way since "American Idol," and as far as singing goes, she probably is the bigger vocal singer. But this was a case of the "Smash" syndrome to me where I felt forcefed this idea of Kathaine McPhee (Jordin Sparks) being this great underdog talent, while if we have two eyes and two ears can discern all too well who the real "stars" are (Megan Hilty/Carmen Ejogo). But the "story" isn't in their respective favors, and Hollywood's predictable and lame. Either way, you have it or you don't, and Jordin doesn't have "it" yet. Her acting wasn't up to par to carry all she had to carry here. The film itself is full of cliches left and right, and I agree that the attention to period detail was virtually nonexistent in places. "One Wing" might as well have been a taped performance from a Jordin Sparks concert in 2012. Just ridiculous. 1968 my ass. But it was entertaining. the music was catchy, and being the die-hard Whitney fan I am, I had to be there opening night for my girl. I think her performance had the opposite effect it had on your audience. I was saddened every time I heard one of her sassy quips or saw Emma's bible-thumping stares. Last performance, last songs, last everything. Done. Finished. And knowing what heights this woman soared in her professional music career, hearing Whitney's big church number was both depressing and startling. Having said all that, I know this is the kind of film I'm going to watch everytime it comes on cable, and I'll be there when the DVD is released too. Gotta support the musicals when they roll around, especially the ones featuring minority casts. I'd recommend seeing it regardless for all of those on the fence about "Sparkle" in general. Don't let my issues stop you. If for nothing else, see this for Whitney's swan song and a breathtakingly gorgeous Carmen Ejogo. C+

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

I was pretty excited when I heard this was announced, and to see it finally come out to middling reviews (poor Jordin!) and a semi-lukewarm box office (#5), I had higher hopes for it. I do plan on seeing it, but now I'm debating whether or not to spend $5-12 on a movie ticket rather than seeing it on DVD.

I was hoping it was going to be getting amazing reviews (and talk of a Best Supporting Actress nod for Whitney Houston), but now I'm getting the feeling it'll be sorta like "Joyful Noise," another musical w/big stars that plays better on the TV screen.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P

Actually Dreamgirls is a Sparkle (1976) remake and the one in the theaters now is an update of that original film, granted the original one is way better then the update. The original is very 1970's but it holds up way better when compared to the New Sparkle.For some reason they took out all the things that forced Sparkle to actually grow as a person. Although I do like that she takes control of her own career, that Sister survives and that Levi doesn't go to jail in the update. Delores on the other hand still needs some character development.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterExcess

I'm really scared Whitney might get some posthumous Oscar traction simply because...she's posthumous.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSo Emotional

I don't know if it is me or not, but neither Sparkle (both original and remake) nor Dreamgirls even remotely capture the Pop sound that made the Supremes so big. For all the glitz glamor costumes and period trappings, they just don't recall the Motown sound.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

Jordin Sparks in that Whitney Houston T-shirt of her from "I'm Your Baby Tonight" made me kind of teary. So sad.

I think I might try to see this before it leaves theaters.

"Celebrate" is a catchy song. Not classic Whitney or anything close to it, but still.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBelle

I had been really looking forward to this (Jordin Sparks did have a certain charm on AI that I thought might translate well to screen, plus Whitney Houston!), but the reviews - including this one - have put me off seeing it in the theater; I'll wait for DVD.

I did think Dreamgirls was underrated, and Ruth Carter is a great costume designer - I still remember Siskel & Ebert saying she should have been Oscar-nominated for her designs for What's Love Got to Do With It.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I'm not really interested in seeing this movie. It just makes me want to see the 1970s original again. Why remake Schumacher's cult classic when you can make your own? I would've loved to see Salim and Mara Akil put their efforts into something like an original Harlem Renaissance Era musical instead of retread of the Motown era...

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFlick Appeal

Oh and I think Tika Sumpter is beautiful...hope she develops as an actress.

August 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFlick Appeal

I liked the film if that's worth anything, and the music was the best part. I bought the soundtrack! I haven't seen the original, though I know that Aretha Franklin did the original soundtrack and Curtis Mayfield wrote the songs. I can't track down the original yet, but when I do, I'll give it a watch too. Go see the film!

August 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJuan

I continue to debate with myself regarding whether or not I'm going to see the film, though my mother wants to make a date of it. Aside from the music, the only really memorable aspect of the original film is Mary Alice's performance.

August 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Carmen made this film "Sparkle". Nonetheless I give credit to all who are involved in this production. Carmen Ejogo is one to watch..She's talented, beautiful and endearing. Bravo!!

August 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSummer

I enjoyed the move Sparkle immensely -- liked this version better. Loved the female empowerment. As far as setting and era, this is the era of GIRL GROUPS -- not just the Supremes. Let us not forget the very first girl groups such as the Bobbetts, Chantels, Shirelles, Shangrilas, the Angels, etc. They set the pace and paved the way. Motown was still trying to give birth. Mary Wells was the first born of Motown -- knocked out the Beatles! Granted there are some drawbacks -- should have been longer -- needed more dance routines, more dialogue between Sparkle and Stix. They all looked somewhat uncomfortable doing their dance routine -- Sister clearly is not a dancer. The last scene with Sister and Satin could have been stronger -- should have seen the fight from beginning to end. I loved the contrast of Delores inspiration to become a physician -- wanting to save lives, but suddenly is forced to snuff out a life -- well done, Tika Sumpter. Whitney was superb -- surely miss her. Will buy the soundtrack and see this movie again!

August 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHonor

Saw this earlier today and I thought it was OK. While there were some pretty amazing performances (Carmen Ejogo, Mike Epps), some good (Whitney Houston, Tika), some so-so (Jordin Sparks), the film itself is what kinda let me down. I guess I was expecting it to be an exhilarating musical, but what I got was just a simplistic story with some odd moments (slo-mo of Mike Epps' after-comedy club scene).

I guess I'm glad I saw it in the theater (everything looks so crisp and clear + the musical numbers felt bigger), but I guess it'd do just fine on DVD.

I do hope the box office picks up a bit, since it IS Whitney's final film.

August 31, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge P.
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