“American Idol” champ Jordan Sparks is the title character, (recreating a role made famous by a pre-“Fame” Irene Cara in the 1978 original), a Motown teen with the dream of becoming a star. “I want to be better than Diana,” she says, heady words at the height of the Supremes’s fame. Forming a band with her siblings, the sexy Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and brainiac Delores (Tika Sumpter), the group rockets to fame in the Detroit area based on Sparkle’s songs and Sister’s sex appeal. Soon, however, drugs and domestic violence cast a dark shadow on their success.
“Sparkle” is two movies. The first hour is a musical Motown fairy tale, complete with sparkling sings and glittering costumes. The second hour becomes a campy cautionary tale, complete with lines like, “Sister can’t fly on one wing,” as Ejogo preps a line of coke.
Of course it ends well, with a huge redemptive musical number, but it’s hard not to wonder why the movie isn’t called “Sister” instead of “Sparkle.”
As dramatic storylines go Sister has all the bases covered and Ejogo hands in a charismatic performance that is much more dynamic than Sparks. Imagine a James Bond movie where M got to do all the cool stuff, and you get the idea.
Sparks holds her own, although she isn’t required to do much other than sing and act plucky, but is outshone (except when she sings) by the more experienced actors. Ejogo, a star in the UK but a relatively new face here, is a scene-stealer, and Mike Epps is terrific as her husband, the vicious comedian Satin. As Stix, the determined but kindhearted manager, Derek Luke has charm to burn, but it is Whitney Houston, in her last role who will likely command most of the attention.
As Emma, the stern single mother who long ago gave up on her dreams of being a singer, Houston is simple and unaffected. She provides a highlight with her take on “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” belting out the gospel song with equal parts gusto and world-weariness.
Hindsight is, of course, twenty-twenty, but it is hard not to read deeper meaning into some of her dialogue. Now that she is gone a line like, “Was my life not cautionary tale enough for you?” seems to ring with meaning.
“Sparkle” is an amiable film that despite its glossy outer shell and melodramatic moments is a crowd pleaser.