A serious drama that works far better as an inadvertent comedy of filmmaking ineptitude, "Sparkle" isn't nearly competent enough to make a name for itself beyond what it's already known for: as the late Whitney Houston's final film. Like "Dreamgirls
," only bat-shit crazy, the film tells the rise-and-fall saga of a three-gal musical act who come crashing down almost before they've taken off. Screenwriter Mara Brock Akil knows no shame as she uses the barest forms of cohesion to piece the narrative togethereven then, it makes little logical sensewhile director Salim Akil (2011's "Jumping the Broom
") puts to use every amateurish camera angle and inappropriate gimmick he can think of (the slow-motion shots, meant to be tragic and operatic, are rendered blissful comic highlights). Together, these two embrace each raggedy cliché as if it were groundbreaking and brand-new. A few choice performances are able to rise above the rubble, but it's certainly not for the film's lack of trying to make the actors look like fools, too.
A gifted songwriter lacking the confidence to perform her own music, Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) has no sooner flaunted her eldest sibling, named Sister (Carmen Ejogo), at nightclub The Discovery when they are approached by passionate young manager Stix (Derek Luke). The time is 1968, the place is Detroit, and he sees in Sister, Sparkle, and their more introverted middle sister Delores (Tika Sumpter) the potential for a new Motown group to rival The Supremes. They start off singing at clubs before receiving their biggest gig: opening up in concert for Aretha Franklin. Music producer Larry (Curtis Armstrong) wants to sign them to his record label once he's had the chance to see them "in the light of day," and what the light of day brings is an ill-timed disaster that sends Larry running in the opposite direction. Torn apart by Sister's mounting drug habit, Sparkle finds herself back at square one, contending along the way with a self-righteous, almost fanatically religious mother, Emma (Whitney Houston), who isn't exactly supportive of her daughter's dreams. If Sparkle can muster the courage to finally stand up for herself and fight for what she believes in, she just might make it to the top yet.
A remake of a little-known 1976 music-driven melodrama of the same name, "Sparkle" is anemic and naïve in the extreme. One minute, Sister and Her Sisters are nobodies, and the next they're suddenly opening for one of the biggest entertainers of the era. Even so, the viewer is led to believe that mother Emma hasn't a clue about their rising fame until she stumbles upon them performing on the television. Keep in mind they live under the same roof. From there, the hoariest of "issue" subplots take over. In a matter of four minutes, Sister goes from being clean as a whistle to a rabid coke fiend, staggering around and rubbing her nose every few seconds. Her husband, no-good stand-up comic Satin (Mike Epps), is the source of her downward spiral, giving her a fresh black eye by the time the last one's healed. When Sparkle and Delores try to get her help, it's all for naught until they come to blows with Satin themselves; from there, another life-changing event rips them apart once more. In weaving this sordid, bittersweet, but finally inspirational tale, director Salim Akil has seemingly edited the film together by using all of the weakest takes. How else to describe the simplest of shotslike a character sitting on a benchbecoming a source of snickering for the audience over how silly the person on screen looks? Or how about the overblown way in which a character is shown crashing to the ground after getting hit over the head with a poker? Or how about the aforementioned slow-motion? One scene where Satin chases Sister around their house with a belt is played so over-the-top (not helped by a ridiculous accompanying music score) that it single-handedly turns marital abuse into material rife for spoofing.
Making her feature acting debut, "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks spunkily fills out the likable title role, growing noticeably more comfortable the further into the picture she gets. If there is more than a hint of inexperience in her early scenes, by the second half she impresses with the layered emotions she is able to pull offparticularly while under the grips of such a spectacularly bad screenplay. The stunning Carmen Ejogo (2009's "Away We Go
") turns in the movie's strongest performance as the troubled Sister, treated as the family's black sheep even after she put her future on hold and took care of her younger sisters when their mother was strung out on drugs. In dialogue that comes a little too close to reality, Whitney Houston's Emma sternly tells Sister, "Sure, I passed out a few times, but I never once woke up in my own vomit!" As for the late Houston, she is remarkably convincing as Emma even if her character is frequently infuriating at best and an awful mother at worst. She comes around by the end to give Sparkle the acceptance she's always yearned for, but it's a long time coming for a bitter middle-aged woman who takes her own past failures out on her kids and uses her religious furor to repress them.
In the annals of well-meaning bad dramas, "Sparkle" fits the criteria. It is more daffily misguided, however, than downright offensive, because it is clear that there were talented people involved. Furthermore, the music is imminently catchy, the production numbers hum along nicely, and Jordin Sparks proves that with better material, she just might have what it takes to be an actor. Most of the rest of "Sparkle" goes wrong in a head-shakingly big way, right down to the climactic sold-out concert Sparkle puts on despite having never released a record and disappearing from the music scene for the better part of a couple years. Who in the world is buying all these tickets and cheering rapturously for her? Clearly, "Sparkle" is set in an alternate version of the late-'60s where logic does not exist. To really go for full believability, it might have been wise to transplant these characters' lives to a different planet.