Sparkle is a movie for anyone who thought that the pop melodrama of Dreamgirls wasn’t over-the-top enough. Set in the late ’60s, it tells the story of three sisters from middle-class Detroit who form a girl group sort of like the Supremes. They’re astoundingly talented, they want to be famous, and at one point they get their shot at a major deal with Columbia Records. But all sorts of things keep getting in the way, like an abusive, coke-sniffing celebrity boyfriend — what happens to him will leave your jaw on the floor — and, more than that, their oppressively uptight church-lady mother, played with teasing confidence and force by Whitney Houston in her final screen role.
The movie is a remake of the 1976 ersatz-Supremes Hollywood fable that starred Irene Cara, and the earlier film’s setting — the late ’50s and early ’60s — made sense. Transplanting the material ahead nearly a decade, to the era of race riots and black power (when the classic Motown sound was, in fact, already starting to fade), hurts the movie’s credibility, since it is now all the harder to believe that three feisty grown women are still living in their puritanical mother’s house because they’re too cowed to go out on their own. From its opening scene, set inside a hopping Detroit nightclub, Sparkle is charged with a synthetically corny high tension. (Cee Lo Green shows up in that scene, and does a fine job of playing a conk-haired funk-soul relic who loves the ladies, but then he completely vanishes from the movie.)
The three sisters are each cut from a very different cloth. The quietly ambitious Sparkle, a brilliant songwriter, is played by the sixth-season American Idol winner Jordin Sparks, who proves to be a lot like Irene Cara — that is, she’s pretty in a slightly pained way and wholesomely sincere to the point of being a bit boring. The whippersnapper Dolores (Tika Sumpter) mostly stays in the background, except when she explodes in moments of vengeful high dudgeon. And then there’s the sister known, literally, as Sister, who’s the star of the group and is played by the ravishingly sexy and accomplished British actress Carmen Ejogo. In this role, she looks and acts strikingly like a demon-driven, down-and-dirty Beyoncé, and her scenes with Mike Epps, as her charismatic but hateful comedian lover, are the most potent in the film. The truth is that whenever Sister is on screen, we’re a little unsure why the movie is named after anyone else.
Sparkle uses some of the same imitation-Motown numbers by Curtis Mayfield that powered the 1976 version, along with new songs by R. Kelly. The music is all highly competent and, frankly, just unmemorable enough to make you wish that you were hearing authentic period chestnuts instead. The trouble with Sparkle isn’t that it’s overwrought (that’s what’s sometimes fun about it). It’s that everything in the movie is derivative and third-hand: a copy of a copy. The film is pulp that’s been fed through a strainer, with bits and pieces squeezed out of a dozen other, better movies (What’s Love Got to Do With It, Lady Sings the Blues, and Dreamgirls, to name just a few). At times, it’s like a Joan Crawford neurotic-mother fantasy, and the gravelly conviction of Whitney Houston’s performance proves that this could have been the first step not merely in a comeback but in a major re-invention. She had the instincts of a superb character actress.
At other times, the movie is a girl-group biopic that never quite delivers the charge of success that we’re longing to see. Jordin Sparks’ big, climactic on-stage number is supposed to do that, but to me it’s just a testament to the way that too many Idol graduates, with their how-many-notes-can-I-cram-inside-a-note technical bravura, short-circuit any true connection with the audience. Sparkle is never more than an overheated mediocrity. The one thing it isn’t, however, is dull. B-