Part “Dreamgirls,” part Mickey and Judy put on a show, “Sparkle” is a musical drama set in Detroit when Marvin Gaye was a superstar and musicians hadn’t yet discovered auto-tune.
“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.
Sparkle actress Tika Sumpter says the movie “adds another diamond” to the legend of Whitney Houston. The film, a remake of a 1976 picture of the same name, stars the late singer in her final role.
The movie, in which she plays the single mother of a musical prodigy, was being heralded as her comeback, but instead is her swansong. She passed away in February, the result of an accidental drowning in the bathtub of her Beverly Hilton hotel room.
Houston’s co-star Jordan Sparks said, “She lights up the screen, and you can just tell she’s so full of joy to be doing this.”
Houston is not the first performer to earn posthumous praise for a film role. In 2008 Heath Ledger won an Academy Award for his performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight, released after his January, 2008 death from accidental prescription drug overdose.
River Phoenix, another actor cut down at the height of his popularity, didn’t live to see his final completed film Silent Tongue, a movie described as “a haunting tale of love, death and shame in the Old West.” Dark Blood, the film Phoenix was just 11 days away from finishing when he overdosed in front of the Viper Room in Los Angeles, was thought lost to time, but has recently been resurrected and will debut in September at the Netherlands Film Festival.
Old Hollywood also saw its share of tragic ends and last performances.
The 1930s superstar Jean Harlow died of renal failure while filming Saratoga. Instead of replacing her, MGM used three doubles (one for close-ups, another for long shots and a third for dubbing the actress’s lines) and rejigged the story. The salvaged movie became MGM’s biggest hit of 1937.
Gary Cooper’s last film, The Naked Edge, released a month after his death wasn’t as well received.
Despite Cooper’s best efforts — his cancer required that he take frequent oxygen breaks — the thriller was a flop.
The Misfits was also a bomb, but is best remembered as the final completed film for two superstars.
Clark Gable didn’t live to see it; he suffered a heart attack two days after wrapping and died soon afterwards. Marilyn Monroe saw it but reportedly hated the movie and her performance.
Chris Farley, John Candy and Phil Hartman passed before their final films, Dirty Work, Wagon’s East and Small Soldiers, hit theatres, but left behind a legacy of laughter.