Movie Review - Sparkle (2012)

Jordin Sparks (left) and
Whitney Houston in "Sparkle"
I haven't seen the original Sparkle (1976) that this film remakes, so I can't make that comparison. Going off films I have seen, Sparkle (2012) is a mix of Dreamgirls (2006) and What's Love Got to Do With It (1993). It starts out as a story of a three-person girl group in 1968 Detroit. It then becomes about an abusive relationship in the music industry. It ends with a girl discovering her dream and getting the gumption to pursue it.

This film was released theatrically during the summer, but it's during the winter that Hollywood starts to consider movies for the Oscar. One category at the Academy Awards that's always been wide-open is Best Original Song. Really, any movie has a shot in this field. The Grammy nominations were just announced this week and two songs from The Hunger Games got recognized as well as the Mumford & Sons song from Brave. I'm not sure if that ups those songs' chances for Oscar nods, but, being that Adele's title track to Skyfall might be disqualified for Oscar eligibility, the songs from Sparkle might have a shot.

Even though there's some controversy surrounding him, I would offer up any one of the three songs by R. Kelly on the soundtrack for Sparkle, particularly "One Wing" performed by Jordin Sparks, which is featured prominently at the conclusion of the film, as well as "Celebrate," which is performed by Whitney Houston during the end credits. Say what you will about Kelly's personal life and trouble with the law, but he is a great songwriter and music producer, and Sparks and Houston are both amazing vocal performers.

Sparks plays Sparkle Henderson, one of three, young, African-American, female siblings. Her eldest sibling is Tammy Henderson, nicknamed Sister. Sister is played by Carmen Ejogo (Lackawanna Blues), and her goal is to be bigger than Diana Ross or Aretha Franklin.

Sparkle and Sister sneak out to a nightclub so that Sister can perform. One late evening, Sparkle meets Stix, played by Derek Luke (Antwone Fisher and Friday Night Lights), a young, black enthusiast who wants to be the next Berry Gordy. Stix becomes enamored with Sparkle but recognizes Sister's talent more and wants to be her manager. Sparkle is only slightly jealous being that she has a semi-secretive desire to be a singer as well, so Stix indulges that desire and decides to turn Sister and Sparkle, along with their other sibling Dolores, played by Tika Sumpter (One Life to Live), into a girl group. He has them play gigs around town, hoping to land a record deal. Whitney Houston plays Emma, their mother, a failed singer who doesn't want her daughters entering the business.

Sparkle and Dolores stay in the background, while Sister is always center stage. Dolores doesn't mind because she's just biding her time until she goes to medical school. On the other hand, Sparkle craves a little bit of the spotlight, but she remains meek about it. Her mother continually discourages them. Part of it is the sexual nature of it. Emma is a church-going lady who doesn't appreciate the seductive power of "Giving Him Something He Can Feel." Emma knows the bad sides of the business and she doesn't want her daughters to get hurt. One might assume that since Emma tried but didn't succeed in the business, she perhaps has no talent. Yet, Emma is a fantastic singer.

Sparkle's relationship with Emma is at the core of this film. It echoes the mother-daughter dynamic in the recent independent production Mama I Want to Sing. That production made the dynamic stronger by pitting religious conservative ideals directly against the sexual nature of contemporary R&B music. Screenwriter Mara Brock Akil only briefly touches upon it here. The rest of Akil's script touches upon and in fact examines an interesting theme, if not a new one, a theme of people chasing after stardom or something bright and shiny because they think it'll make them better, and it's usually about the chase, about going fast to get to something. It's never about the steady pursuit.

Sister starts to date Stix's cousin, a man named Levi, played by Omari Hardwick (Next Day Air and For Colored Girls). Sister also becomes interested in a famous comedian named Satin Struthers, played by Mike Epps (Next Day Air and Next Friday). Levi is a poor, working-class guy who can only give her paper presents, but Satin can give her fancy jewelry, so she dumps Levi for Satin.

Unfortunately, Mike Epps' character of Satin Struthers is painted in too broad of a brush. He's too obviously evil with hardly any layers or gradations. Akil crafts an amazing scene where he crashes a dinner. He makes great points, which go back to that issue of religious conservatism versus artistic liberalism. Yet, instead of allowing Satin to be a fully-fleshed person, Akil makes him the uncompromising bad, which pushes this movie into Tyler Perry territory where nuance and subtlety typically go to die.

Jordin Sparks is sweet and lovely in the role, but she's a lesser Jennifer Hudson. Whitney Houston is delightful in the end. She's pretty fierce or sassy throughout. Tika Sumpter is somewhere between. Carmen Ejogo is doing her impression of Lady Sings the Blues. Derek Luke is his usual, charming self. The true breakout performance comes from Omari Hardwick. He's given a lot more layers that he excellently plays.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for domestic abuse, drug material, language and smoking.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 56 mins.


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