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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 24 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 34
Ill-fated Sparkle hopelessly out of tune
Arts & Entertainment
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Ill-fated Sparkle hopelessly out of tune

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

SPARKLE
Opens August 17

Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) lives with her two older sisters, Sister (Carmen Ejogo) and Dolores (Tika Sumpter), in their iron-fisted, churchgoing mother Emma's (Whitney Houston) spacious Detroit home. It is 1968, and the Motown movement is sweeping the country. One night Sparkle persuades Sister to sing one of her songs at a club's open mic competition, the pair attracting the attention of wannabe music producer Stix (Derek Luke) in the process.

One thing leads to another and he deftly persuades all three ladies to form a group, with Sister as the lead and Sparkle responsible for the songwriting. Soon the trio's star is on the rise, and the young women catch the eye of a Columbia Records executive (Curtis Armstrong), who might be interested in signing them to a contract. But Sister has also sparked the affections of comedian Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), and the pair's destructive relationship has the potential to bring down the group and destroy Sparkle's dreams of musical stardom before they even have the chance to achieve liftoff.

A remake of the 1976 musical with Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas, director Salim Akil (Jumping the Broom) and his screenwriter wife Mara Brock Akil (TV's The Game and Cougar Town) have transported their version of Sparkle even further back in time, setting the proceedings right in the middle of the Motown explosion. Musically, this was wise - their film is filled with rhythms and sounds that can't help but make one enthusiastically move and groove even while sitting in a darkened theater.

Sadly, this might have been the only wise idea the pair had. Dramatically and structurally, this remake is an absolute mess, going the Dreamgirls meets A Star Is Born route but never in a way that makes what's happening feel fresh or original. The movie is a turgid slog of clich├ęs, empty melodrama, and wasted opportunities. Even with a couple of a show-stopping moments, on the whole the flick is a nearly two-hour mess that left me feeling bruised, battered, and bludgeoned, and aside from the glorious soundtrack there was hardly a single part of it I felt emotionally connected to.

That might be a little unfair. The subplot involving Sister and Satin, while tired and overly familiar, is acted with passion by Ejogo and Epps, who deliver their scenes with an electricity of purpose. The pair throw themselves into their portraits with conviction, letting every ounce of themselves seep off of the celluloid, making their tragedy at least somewhat compelling in the process.

Problem is, we've seen this story a billion times before, and we've seen it told a heck of a lot better. The price of stardom. The tragic nature of abusive love. The pain and suffering addiction can lead to. The heartbreak and bitter aftertaste of dreams unfulfilled. All of that and more is here, and none of it is very interesting. The Akils present their story with a turgid dogmatism that is almost insulting, slapping the viewer across the face when a subtle caress would have delivered the point with tons more power. They're going through the motions, time and continuity having no apparent meaning, everything leading to a foregone conclusion that's about as rousing as an American Idol finale.

I bring up that show for a reason - not because Jordan Sparks was its sixth-season winner (making comparisons to Academy Award-winning season-four also-ran Jennifer Hudson sadly inevitable) - but because of the way the final concert is shot, executed, and staged. Did anyone suggest that less might be more in the case of Sparkle's triumphant moment - that going over the top with a lot of unnecessary theatrics might call attention away from the innate power of the moment and instead bring back memories of Sparks beating out Blake Lewis for the American Idol crown?

If so, nobody listened, and that's the problem with Sparkle. No one here is bad, per se - all of the actors, including Sparks, read their lines with conviction and by and large do all that's required of them. But there is no restraint where the bigger picture is concerned. The volume is pushed past 11, making the mediocrity of the whole far more apparent, the one or two quiet moments with potential for real connection disappearing into the sonically maddening ether.

Obviously, this movie will be talked about more because of Houston than anything else. While she does OK here, while her performance as the bitter mother desperately trying to keep her daughters from repeating her own mistakes isn't an embarrassment (no The Preacher's Wife or Waiting to Exhale redux here), I hope the movie will be judged on its own merits and not treated as some sort of sacred document because of her supporting role. The bottom line is that while Houston's death was a tragedy, this doesn't make Sparkle any less pedestrian, and while I'll happily enjoy the singer's music for the foreseeable future and beyond, here's hoping I never have to think about this film and her involvement in it ever again.

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