Emma Anderson’s (Whitney Houston) three daughters are each beautiful and blessed with good singing voices. Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is truly in love with music — she doesn’t just sing; she writes music too and has a book full of what she comes to believe could be future hits. Sister (Carmen Ejogo), as her sister Tammy is called, loves the spotlight. She can sing, but what she really does is captivate an audience with her sex appeal. Dolores (Tika Sumpter) doesn’t actually care one thing for singing or the spotlight, but she wants to go to medical school. So when Sparkle and Sister enlist her to join a trio, Dolores agrees, hoping to bring in some extra money.
A trio isn’t initially what Sparkle has in mind when Stix (Derek Luke), a would-be manager who sees Sister perform, first approaches her. She initially thinks perhaps she could be the star. But then her lack of confidence gets in the way and she allows him to talk her into bring Sister into the act, knowing that she, with her willingness to play up her sexiness, will get them noticed. Which, naturally, it does but not always for the good. Enter Satin (Mike Epps), a comedian who takes a liking to Sister. A villain from the start, he wins Sister over with diamonds and flash, but he also turns out to be violent and introduces her to drugs.
And that’s exactly what Mrs. Anderson suspected would happen all along. A former singer herself, Mrs. Anderson was left (at least, that’s how it appears) by two men and was strict with her daughters in hopes that they could do better. Because this is that kind of movie, when her daughters appear to be headed down the same road she traveled, Anderson reacts with crazy-seeming harshness.
At some point, while yelling at her daughters about the dangers of the show-biz life, Houston’s character says to her daughters something like “wasn’t my life enough of a cautionary tale for you?” It is hard to hear this line delivered by the raspy-voiced, fragile-seeming Whitney Houston and not think of her in real life and all the ways this story is not unlike the things we’ve heard about her: the drug use, the bad marriage. Houston is truly just a supporting character in this movie — Sparkle and Sister, and thusly Sparks and Ejogo, are in the movie’s spotlight. But because of the subject matter and her recent death, Houston looms large over the production. For me, it gave a note of solemnity to the movie that it didn’t quite earn, causing kind of a disconnect between what was happening on screen and the real-life drama and the way it ended. The movie is melodramatic — gooey Motown-era music, period costumes and big emotions — but because of Houston there was for me an odd thread of grimy reality that just never wove itself into the rest of what was happening on screen.
Not that the movie is completely overshadowed by real life. Sparks’ wide-eyed performance and Ejogo’s big howling one are both fun to watch in the way that the big showy performances of Chicago or Dreamgirls can be fun. I was moderately entertained by some of the numbers and enjoyed learning the origin of “Something He Can Feel,” which I had previously thought of only as an En Vogue song (this making it probably the first time in at least 15 years that I had thought of En Vogue themselves at all).
Sparkle sits on the recent movie musical continuum somewhere south of the aforementioned Chicago and Dreamgirls but still worthy enough for a look, particularly by Gleeks and other musical fans. C+
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material and for some violence, language and smoking. Directed by Salim Akil and written by Mara Brock Akil, with a story by Howard Rosenman, Sparkle is an hour and 56 minutes long and distributed by TriStar Pictures.