Mark Reviews Movies

Sparkle (2012)

SPARKLE (2012)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Salim Akil

Cast: Jordin Sparks, Carmen Ejogo, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking)

Running Time: 1:56

Release Date: 8/17/12

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 16, 2012

A star rises and falls; another stands in the shadows waiting for her chance to shine. Sparkle tells a familiar story (or two or three) but does so with a surprising amount of compassion, a weary soul, and a soundtrack that encapsulates and recreates a musical era with verve.

The story is nothing new, even beyond the fact that the film is a remake of a 1976 movie of the same name. The plot and conflicts having been previously defined and solidified in many a work of the same vein, Mara Brock Akil's screenplay keeps them grounded in characters with deeper inner struggles than the story provides. That's not to say the script doesn't have the characters break down into fits of histrionics; it's just that, when they do, there is a legitimate reason for them apart from some mandatory need for conflict.

The story opens in Detroit in 1968 at a local club. Backstage, Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) is helping her older sister, nicknamed "Sister" (Carmen Ejogo), prepare to go on stage to sing a song Sparkle has written. It's a big moment for both them—a chance for their talents to be recognized. Sister once tried this in a past life, alluded to by characters who mention a former marriage and New York City "spitting" her out. Sparkle has never had a taste of fame, but she dreams of becoming bigger and better than Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin one day. All she needs to do is get over the feeling that she is an inferior performer compared to Sister. The third sister in their family, from a different father, is Dolores (Tika Sumpter). She also sings, but her plans to go to medical school trump that.

Sister is a hit, and Stix (Derek Luke), an aspiring manager, wants to turn the three sisters into a girl group. He also has eyes for Sparkle, while his cousin Levi (Omari Hardwick) instantly fell in love with Sister when he first saw her. Competing for Sister's affection is Satin (Mike Epps), a comedian who has managed to break through to white audiences in this time of racial segregation by making jokes that play to racist stereotypes.

The screenplay pays only a passing and vague attention to racial tensions of the time, with mentions of Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots in Detroit the previous year. Satin does not win over any new support when he argues those riots were perpetrated by a group of people of "lesser intelligence" during a meal. This turns into a tense dinner-table confrontation between the comic and the sisters' mother Emma (Whitney Houston, in her first feature film role in 16 years, which turned out to be her last), whose own failed music career led her to some dark times and who is now a devout Christian, over what racial epithet would be best used to describe what Satin has made himself out to be to gain success.

The sisters have grown to resent their mother for her insistence on keeping a close eye on them. As their career takes off, they begin sneaking out of the house to perform, as Stix hustles at the local pool hall to get money for their wardrobe. When Satin announces that he and Sister are going to be married, Emma has had enough of her eldest daughter. Sister had enough of her mother long ago, and the culminating fight between the two is an explosion of bitterness at each other and with themselves for going so long without airing the obvious grievances between them.

The performances are generally strong. Sumpter plays the least vocal of the three sisters, but she has a solid head on her shoulders—an admirable trait absent from almost every other character in the film. Luke's independent Stix comes closest. Sparks does fine work, too, playing Sparkle's gradual self-discovery. Ejogo simmers in the performance scenes, making love to the camera like it's going out of style. Houston has one song, an old Gospel hymn, that is, for better or worse in terms of momentum, a showstopper (On a side note, some of Emma's lines, like her assertion that Sparkle "have faith" in herself, hold a tragic irony in light of Houston's untimely death). Epps is quite effective as the haunted comic who hates himself for his career path more than anyone else possibly could.

Through the second act, the story primarily belongs to Sister as she learns firsthand how Satin deals with his self-loathing through drugs and abuse. Some of the film comes across as a blatant morality play, with Sister abandoning the values of her mother for a life of worldly fame and suffering the consequences of her transgressions, but, like the central conflicts, that element is not overplayed. The story's turning point—a sudden but seemingly inevitable act of violence—combined with the characters' apparent denial of magnitude of the event shatter whatever lesson the previous events approach. Save for one, self-conscious slow-motion sequence that stands out from the rest of the film, director Salim Akil keeps things relatively low key; the first sign of trouble between Sister and Satin is a quick reveal as a black eye emerges in the light of a backstage mirror.

The music behind this is catchy and in line with the sound of the time (The film's latter songs, penned by R. Kelly, are of a decided lesser quality than Curtis Mayfield's original tunes that constitute the sisters' career). Sparkle is, perhaps, ultimately a song-and-dance show, but it has an honest, if well-worn, core.

Copyright © 2012 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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