Sunday, January 6, 2013

A Supernova Is Nothing More Than A Dying Star. Sparkle (2012): A Review

SPARKLE (2012)

Sparkle might have been WHITNEY's! comeback, and it would have shown that WHITNEY! had grown and matured as an actress.  However, this was not meant to be, as Whitney Houston self-destructed before Sparkle was released.   It is tempting, and far too easy, to see that WHITNEY! was more the character of Sister than anything else: a woman with beauty, talent, and ambition that found herself married to the worst kind of man, sped her way into drugs and ultimately paid a price for her fall.  However, Sparkle is less a cautionary tale than a big, lavish show with an interesting story, some good performances and wonderful music.

The remake of the 1976 Joel Schumacher keeps to the spirit of the original while altering things to showcase the actors and singers, but the story pretty much stays the same.  Sparkle (Jordin Sparks...a name not tinged with irony) is a shy girl who writes songs and has a good voice.  What she doesn't have is confidence among other things, so she turns to her more glamorous older sister Tammy, who is generally referred to as Sister (Carmen Ejogo) to sing Sparkle's songs in a more sultry manner than the good church-going sister can.  Sister loves the attention and the men, and soon their combined talents attracts the attention of ambitious manager Stix (Derek Luke).  While he likes Sister, he finds in Sparkle someone to really care about.  Girl groups in Detroit are all the rage, so Sparkle and Sister rope in Dolores, better known as Dee (Tika Sumpter) a girl who harbors no ambitions to be a singer but instead to be a doctor and who can be counted to speak her mind. 

Sister and Her Sisters begin to rise in popularity, all the while being able to keep most of their success secret from their church-going mother, Emma (WHITNEY!).  With success, Sparkle and Stix's relationship grows, but so does Sister's slow slide.  She quickly rejects Stix's cousin, the grounded and working-class Levi (Omari Hardwick) for the wealthy and successful comic Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), whose comedy appears to be based on ridiculing his people for the laughter of the white population.  Over everyone's loud objection Sister hooks up with Satin, who quickly devolves from a sweet guy to a drunk abuser, one who introduces cocaine to his girl.



Gee but does that sound familiar...

On the cusp of a major record deal, Sister's sorry state kills that.  Everyone soon starts heading their own ways: Stix, determined to be the next Berry Gordy, asks Sparkle to marry him but she won't leave Emma.  Dee is pursuing her own doctor dreams, but it's Sister that truly falls apart.  In a confrontation between Satin and the sisters one inadvertently kills him, but Sister takes the fall.  Sparkle and Stix reunite, and with Emma's blessing pursues her dreams with a one-woman show.

Sparkle may be a bit melodramatic in its rise, fall, and rise story of our heroine, but on the whole it's an entertaining film filled with great musical numbers.  In a film like Sparkle, the music is important, and it was a wise decision by director Salim Akil to keep many songs from the original film (including the iconic Something He Can Feel), and his staging of the numbers (including a montage where it seems we go through every fashion style in the late 60s) keeps things moving steadily.

In terms of performances, I can't fault Jordin Sparks in her acting debut.  The American Idol champion does a strong job though in her role of the shy Sparkle, a girl more confident in her writing than in her singing.  She manages to convey Sparkle's genuine sweetness and insecurities (one suspects, drawing from her own concerns about doing a good acting job).  I can say that Sparks as Sparkle more than held her own.

Id say that the performances in Sparkle were all excellent (a credit to both the cast and to Akil). Sumpter's Dee came across as confident and unafraid.  Of the three sisters, she was the one who had the best head on her shoulders.  Both Luke as the enthusiastic and ambitious but caring Stix and Epps as the villainous Satin showed sides to their talents that have yet to be fully tapped.  One can almost see that these two actors have been yearning for a dramatic change of pace, and we quickly forget that it is Derek Luke and/or Mike Epps on the screen.  Both of them give their strongest and best performances of their careers in Sparkle.

While Hardwick has a smaller role as Levi, he makes the most of it, showing that he was a good guy who was done wrong by the ambitious and foolish Sister.

As for WHITNEY!, she clearly had come a long way from her somewhat awkward turn in The Bodyguard (where she played a version of herself).  Here, Houston gives her overly concerned mother a reason for her worries.  While showing she is now devoted to her God she doesn't come across as a fanatic or crazed woman, but one who uses her faith to guard her against the mistakes in her own past.  My one criticism about Houston is that when she sings His Eye Is on the Sparrow, she had A voice but not THE Voice.  It was sadly clear that Houston's once formidable singing was now weaker due to her own actions. 

The true revelation is Carmen Ejogo as the doomed Sister.  Her performance is so strong that Sparkle almost appears to be Sister's story, not Sparkle's.  The film does appear to focus more on Sister's slow descent, her anger and resentments, her great beauty and brash confidence, than it does on the title character.  I suppose it is fair to say Ejogo stole the film, but no one objects.  At turns tempestuous and tragic, beautiful and broken, Ejogo's magnificent performance should make her a star. 

Sparkle has some peculiar moments.  For example, it does appear strange that Sister and Her Sisters were achieving all this fame and success in the music world but Emma appears almost completely unaware of it.  It isn't until she accidentally sees them performing as the opening act for Aretha Franklin that Emma knows her three daughters have formed a singing group.  Cee Lo Green's appearance also seemed to be just a hyped-up cameo: other than the opening where he sings a number I don't remember him playing any part in the film at all.  Also, while Levi's anger towards Satin is understandable, his appearance at the comedy club Satin's trying his new, more black-friendly material on seems almost tacked on. 

In fact, at times what is suppose to be the Sister/Satin subplot becomes so dominant that Sparkle comes dangerously close to slipping into a cross between Lady Sings the Blues and Star 80.

On the whole, though, Sparkle is an entertaining movie with strong performances both in acting and singing, in particular by Carmen Ejogo.  I have no complaints about the time I spent watching the film, well, except perhaps by the end of it I was feeling a bit run-down (particularly by the dominant subplot).  However, Sparkle entertains, which is all it wanted of and from me. 

Sparkle gave me something I could feel...      

Good night, sweet Sister.
Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. 


DECISION: B-

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