Whitney Houston first started singing as a young girl in the gospel choir at the New Hope Baptist Church in New Jersey. Sadly, that's where she stopped singing, too when she died in February, her funeral was staged at New Hope, with the congregation harmonizing along to her favorite hymns. So it's powerful to hear Houston belting out a gospel song for the last time on record on Sparkle: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack, Salim Akil's remake of the 1976 musical about three sisters who form a girl group. Her version of the standard ''His Eye Is on the Sparrow'' begins with just piano and a little bit of church organ, as Houston testifies, in a gorgeously rippling solo, that Jesus is watching over her. By the time the chorus kicks in, with a full choir, you'd expect her to break into a sermon-stopping vocal run. And she comes close a few times. But she never does. You get the feeling her voice, raspy from so much hard living, just couldn't take it. (For contrast, listen to her rafters-high renderings of ''Joy'' and ''I Believe in You and Me'' on the smash 1996 soundtrack for The Preacher's Wife.)
So that leaves Houston's costar Jordin Sparks to carry most of Sparkle. Unfortunately, that burden is heavy: The original film was inspired by the Supremes' story, with songs written by Curtis Mayfield and performed on the soundtrack by Aretha Franklin. Trying to do justice to that legacy, Sparks bellows Mayfield's power ballad ''Look Into Your Heart'' with absolute conviction. But she's less confident when she joins costars Carmen Ejogo and Tika Sumpter on three other Mayfield classics, sighing over the red-velvet soul of ''Hooked on Your Love,'' acting sassy on the clap-clap disco of ''Jump,'' and purring her way through the shooby-shoo seduction of ''Something He Can Feel.''
With her smooth delivery and relentlessly wholesome image, Sparks can't quite master the breathy sensuality of the songs' gotta-have-it lyrics. R&B siren Goapele easily trumps her on the hip-swinging ''Running.'' If there's a message implicit in Sparks' good-girl performance, it's this: She can play a vixen, but she doesn't have to believe she really is one.
Sparks' pride in her own poise and virtue has been so obvious since her American Idol days, it's almost cruel to match her with R. Kelly, who wrote three new songs here. On ''Love Will,'' she sounds like she's reciting lines from his erotic memoirs and trying hard not to laugh: ''Ladies/If you out there/I just wanna talk to you...'' she begins, before warning us about what dogs men can be. Real talk!
Funny, then, that the best track belongs to the only man on the bill, one who can't stop reminding us how low-down he is. ''When the morning comes and I'm not there/Darlin', please understand/That I'm a man!'' Cee Lo exclaims on ''I'm a Man.'' His strutting soul-funk oozes so much charisma, you'll almost believe that he's a ''love machine.'' (Almost.) But the track only makes it easier to miss Houston. If anyone could've served up a fierce rebuttal, it was her. And I would've loved to hear her sing ''I'm a Woman.'' BBest Tracks:
Cee Lo's soul confessional I'm a Man
Goapele's girl-group rave-up Running