Salim Akil's Sparkle, based on the 1976 film of the same name (very loosely based itself on The Supremes), updates and transforms it so much that despite still using the same basic structure (especially at the beginning), characters and names, and even many of the same songs, by Curtis Mayfield, it is nearly completely unrecognizable. I recently saw the '76 version, which, despite some good performances and versions of Mayfield tunes, I could not recommend. As for the new one, I can recommend this Sparkle to just about anybody.
From the opening static crackle of 1968 radio playing news of the day, Marvin Gaye and MLK to the in-credits final song, Sparkle stands up the hairs on the backs of the audience's necks with virtuoso acting, singing and performing from stars Carmen Ejogo (Coretta Scott King in HBO's "Boycott," Away We Go), "American Idol" winner Jordin Sparks, late legend Whitney Houston and Tika Sumpter as a family of four strong and independent women in Detroit around the music scene.
Screenwriter/co-producer Mara Brock Akil (the director's wife) has moved the story from its original setting a decade earlier in Harlem, and transformed its story's outcome and features vividly to Motown and a larger music and entertainment scene. Watching the original, which I saw only after the new one, I could feel the love and respect for the material, the characters themselves, involved in creating the new one, but a total dramatic reimagination in the writing invests them with more genuine sympathy, respect and scope, especially as portrayed by these great actors in slightly altered emotional territories. Every stitch of melodrama has been restitched for more credibility and reality. Any musical, even one in which the characters don't just break into song, but are performers, like this one, will have elements of camp and soap opera, but on the whole this is a realistic drama of discovery and family legacies and relationships.
Jordin Sparks plays Sparkle Anderson, a dreamy but practical teen songwriter with bound books full of lyrics she carries everywhere. She convinces her older sister Tammy (Ejogo, wonderful), who is mostly referred to as just Sister, to perform one of them at a rocking amateur night hosted by Black (Cee-Lo Green with his own number). She's a hit, and people are chasing them out the door, notably Stix (Derek Luke, Antwone Fisher, Red Tails, very good as Sparkle's boyfriend) who later represents the two sisters plus the third, Dolores/Dee (Sumpter, excellent) as they form a girl group, "Sister and Her Sisters," singing Sparkle's songs (a key innovation of the new version which adds a lot of depth).
As they perform more, the act can't help but come to the attention of Emma (Whitney Houston, outstanding), their mother, who thinks of herself as a failed professional performer (though she can lead the church choir) because of unfortunate experiences she had trying to make it as a singer which she transmits as warnings to her daughters. She has strict expectations of her children regarding church and school, especially for Sparkle and future medical student Dee.
Sister Tammy is a different story. She is not in school and has returned home after a few hard knocks in the real world. Her leading the band soon becomes her major focus, and this, along with her well portrayed love/hate story with Satin Struthers (Mike Epps, great), a scary-suave drug-dedicated comedian, alienates her from her mother and prompts other conflicts within the family and the group.
Interspersed with this very convincing drama are the very convincing songs, gospel from Houston, Mayfield and R. Kelly period-piece rock and roll (which actually feels more credible for '68 than the original film's '58 setting), performed at the perfect moments for the story with superior arrangements, great costumes, choreography and other details which bring the story to life and keep the audience moving with it.
There is emotional resonance in the tragic loss of Whitney Houston in much of the film and its story, in her character's background and in the unfolding story of Sister. These elements are present and effective in the film, but are not direct commentary. They are added upon by Whitney's story, but do not exploit it in any way. I've seen it three times now and cried at least that many times, I couldn't help it. I also got a first-class, truly rocking, truly soulful rock and soul show and a persuasive and moving family story. I'll be back.
Do or don't go see Sparkle as a tribute to Whitney Houston, though it is admirably one, but don't express any disapproval of or disappointment with her life or how it ended by staying home. Go see Sparkle. Houston, Sparks, Ejogo, Sumpter (and all) make it a great movie. It's four of four stars all the way.
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