Movie Review: Sparkle

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Set in the 1960s, Sparkle (a remake of the 1976 version of the same name) tells the tale of three sisters who strive to become recording artists in the Motown era and struggle to remain a family amid the toxic magnification of fame. It is Whitney Houston‘s final film.

Don’t see it just for that reason, though she shows one last glimpse of her larger than life talent in an oversimplified secondary role as the girls’ strict, religious mother. In fact, Whitney, who is credited as an executive producer and reportedly fought to get this movie made, portrays a character very similar to her own mother, Cissy Houston, a former backup singer for Elvis (another luminous star who died tragically – in his case 35 years ago today) who became a Bible-thumping Christian. One can almost feel Whitney putting her own spin on this role, updating, improving, pulling it back and calibrating her performance. She transforms a two-dimensional Bible mother into someone who’s probably better than I imagine her own mother to be. That counts for something.

Unfortunately, Whitney and everybody else doesn’t get much to work with in obvious characterizations and meandering plotlines. See Sparkle (and only if you want to) for the music, the showmanship and the soap opera, but know going in that it’s more soap than opera. Sparkle is not, however, a vehicle for any star, Whitney or anyone else. As the title character (Sparkle’s her name), TV talent show alumni Jordin Sparks is sufficiently fresh-faced (my filmmaker guest liked her more than I did), playing the ingenue who becomes a mature woman amid the wrenching female family saga that encompasses race, sex, drugs, money and religion. Sparkle learns to put some sizzle into God’s gospel and that’s what the story amounts to, which turns out to be anti-climactic and that’s not because I’m not religious. Her big solo number is a repetitious bust, to be frank, but the end credits song is better. It should have been in the movie.

So much should have been in (and left out of) this movie. Mother and children live what looks like an easily upper middle class existence but everyone talks as if they’re struggling in the middle class. Mother has a dress shop – she apparently built her business herself (insert Barack “you didn’t build that” Obama joke here) – yet we do not see enough of what makes Mama make money and pay for her daughters’ pricey bedroom interiors. Nor do we see enough of how middle child Sister (red hot Carmen Ejogo) goes from mother love-deprived sex kitten to drug addict and battered woman or why Sparkle’s boyfriend Stix (Derek Luke) puts business above his honey or why he switches back or why Dolores (known as just “D” and you’ll see why and played by Tika Sumpter), my favorite character, wants to become a doctor when not many black women from Detroit, where Sparkle takes place, sought admission to medical schools. Too much story and not enough cutting and editing, leaving gaps where there should be transitions, is a problem. One gap is an interesting character named Levi (Omari Hardwick), who gets jettisoned from the story and then reappears in an out-of-character way.

Yet it’s not a bad movie and Sparkle has a shine. Burrowed between cuts and fragmentary scenes is a strong thread – stronger in certain ways than in the original and certainly better than was executed in Dreamgirls – about siblings and what it means to be a sister. Sparkle, the spirited songwriter, is the young pup in love. D is the protective, responsible older sibling who has no time for anything but her goals. Sister is the troubled sparrow, who mistakes her virtue for a ticket to ride, and when she gets derailed she recognizes her own limits and pays her sisters back. It all could have been quite moving, really, and at times it comes close or evokes an emotion, but cardboard characterizations such as the heavy Satin (Mike Epps), dim the lights and trivialize real issues such as race-based self-hate, toxic infatuation which is not love, physical abuse and, in what should have been the most compelling part of the story, self-centered opportunism, which many mistake for 100 percent perfectly selfish ambition. All this rests on the musical performances of the early 60s’ girl group, which are nearly worth the price of admission. The first few numbers are excellent, impeccably costumed by Ruth Carter, staged and filmed and with audience reaction shots so that you remember that it’s a story, not a music video. The tunes and numbers are often elegant, sultry and wonderfully accessible. If you love the Motown pop sound, you’ll love the musical scenes.

Religion is played as the cultural black church version – a more positive, jubilant and less fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible in which God rejoices in seeing “happy, good-looking black folks” in his house – and when the girls are boppin’ in their babydoll dresses to pave the way for their future, their success is celebrated, not denigrated. Director Salim Akil (TV’s The Game) teases us with thought-provoking lines about never being sorry for telling the truth and about people who ought to be helping themselves being too busy prayin’ with preachers who are awfully quick to take the money in the basket. But the topically relevant director falls back on odd shots that sugarcoat men hitting women and he doesn’t develop the plot to match the tunes. Along the way, we lose track of what begins with an excellent sense of time and place, complete with civil rights clips, and end up with a production number that feels like 1995. But Whitney Houston makes an impression in a movie, from The Bodyguard to The Preacher’s Wife, and Sparkle shows us a peek at what might have been part of a redemptive comeback wrapped in a cautionary tale about discovering why what’s held sacred is what shines the brightest.

Remember Whitney for Her Ability

Note: two months ago today, singer Whitney Houston died (which I wrote about here on that date). The following is a piece I wrote to remember Whitney at her best.

Remember when you first heard Whitney Houston sing? Was it “The Greatest Love of All” or “I Will Always Love You”—or maybe her Super Bowl performance of the Star-Spangled Banner? Her voice had a wide range, a soulful style and she had an ability to glide through a song. Whitney phrased the lyric, made the transition and held the note in such a way that she sang in perfect tune. Now that the coroner has ruled her drug-related death essentially accidental at the age of 48, we can say there are important lessons and that we were lucky to have her, as Kevin Costner, her co-star in The Bodyguard, said at her funeral.

You might not know that from the negative spectacle surrounding her death. Even before she died, the media preyed on her troubles with sensationalistic headlines. Afterwards, they published a photograph of her corpse in a coffin. But Whitney Houston deserves to be remembered for what made her great, not primarily for whatever may have caused her demise. Mr. Costner, whose eulogy merits special attention, named the reason why.

Whatever else, Whitney Houston was a woman of exceptional ability. She leaves behind the most beloved and popular songs of our times, whether a haunting farewell, a defiant anthem or an exuberant declaration of a desire to dance. Yet our culture, filled with sniping and conjecture that denigrate her accomplishments, is consumed by her downfall.

Sensing this, Mr. Costner urged us to “remember the sweet miracle of Whitney.” In his remarks at her funeral, he sought to establish the context of her prematurely ended life by evoking their bond, which was made of pride and productiveness and their byproduct, joy.

In a tribute filled with references to God and the Baptist church—in which both he and Whitney were raised—he declined to invoke the usual insistence that the deceased is in a better place and, instead, he spoke to the best of their secular bond. Recalling that, as a boy watching his father build a church from the ground up, he wanted to be “in on the action,” he said that one of the men noticed and told him to “have at it” and start pounding some nails. Have at it he did, eventually making his own outstanding career which earned him the ability to cast Whitney Houston in his movie The Bodyguard, which made millions of dollars.

Kevin Costner talked about the challenge of working with Whitney. He spoke about the studio being dubious of casting a black actress opposite a white actor—reminding us of the burdens of breaking with tradition—admitting that he had to think twice. “Whitney,” he said, referring to an artist who had also been rejected by black audiences and criticized for catering to whites, “would have to earn it.”

Earn it she did—and she did it in a culture in which people of ability are envied and ridiculed. Mr. Costner, telling tales that elicited smiles and laughter, explained that Whitney first had to overcome her own doubt. It turned out that she’d used so much make-up during a screen test that it melted under the hot lights. When later asked why she’d done it, she said: “I just wanted to look my best.”

This was from a beautiful and glamorous star whom Mr. Costner recalled had once confided she’d told God she was going to be great. On the eve of her biggest-selling song from The Bodyguard, which turned out to be a hit movie, he said Whitney wasn’t sure if she was good enough.

Addressing himself to young people wondering whether they are good enough, he concluded: “I think Whitney would tell you: Guard your bodies, guard the precious miracle of your own life, and then sing your hearts out, knowing that there’s a lady in heaven who is making God himself wonder how he created something so perfect.”

There, in a word, is the key to the theme of Kevin Costner’s eulogy: that to be your best, you should value yourself first and foremost and be able to conceive of yourself as perfect. Perfection, he implied, is possible. Whether she ultimately knew it or not, Whitney Houston proved it in every rising note.

Kevin Costner said what needed to be said; that Whitney’s work was well done—that it was better than others—that it was perfect. He said it when it needed to be said and he said it to those who needed to hear it most. By eulogizing Whitney Houston for her ability—essentially praising the good for being good in an age of sneering nihilism—her onscreen bodyguard conferred upon her memory an act of poetic justice and a lesson for everyone to learn.