Thursday, August 30, 2012

SPARKLE (2012)

Written by Mara Brock Akil

Directed by Salim Akil

Where & When: Arclight Cinemas, Hollywood, CA. August 21, 2012  4:45PM

One of Whitney Houston's favorite films as a young girl was "Sparkle". Released in 1976, it's the story about a trio of talented African-American sisters living in 1950's Harlem who are striving to achieve success as singers but their lives unravel when stardom, gangsters and drug addiction enters their lives. Years later, after Ms Houston herself found fame as a top-selling musical artist, she began working on trying to bring a new version of the film to the screen. The film first came close to being made around 2001 and was to star r&b singer, Aaliyah but was delayed after her tragic death in August of that year. The singer herself went through several years of struggling with personal issues and addiction but seemed to have recovered recently, ready to resume her career. The new "Sparkle" finally went before the cameras last year with Houston as the devout, overprotective mother of the girls and "American Idol" winner, Jordin Sparks playing the title character in her film debut. Unfortunately, tragedy once again struck this production as three months after filming was completed, Whitney Houston passed away in February. While "Sparkle" is far from a completely successful endeavor but still serves as a bittersweet reminder of the glorious talent of this beautiful and great artist.

Some changes to the plot have been made in this remake with this take being glossy with most of the rough edges smoothed out compared to the original which was much darker and gritty. Now set in Detroit during the 1960's as Motown was becoming the sound of young America, Tammy Anderson who goes by "Sister" (Carmen Ejogo) has snuck out of the house to perform a song written by her youngest sister, Sparkle (Jordin) at a nightclub. Sparkle is not confident enough to sing her own material but Sister dazzles the room with a sultry performance. This catches the attention of Stix (Derek Luke), an aspiring music promoter looking for an act. He's also impressed not only by Sparkle's songwriting talent but by her beauty.

Stix thinks a girl group is the best direction to take but has to convince Sister, Sparkle and their other sibling, Delores (Tika Sumpter) to form a musical act. They agree but must keep it a secret from their mother, Emma (Houston) who is strongly against any of her children entering show business as she almost died while trying to start a music career. Sister had to move back in with her mother after her own disastrous attempt to become a singer in New York.but she's determined to make it this time. After winning a talent contest, the group called, "Sister and Her Sisters" become a popular local act. Sister gets swept away by Satin Strothers (Mike Epps), a suave comedian who achieved success by making jokes feeding on African-American stereotypes. Satin showers her with gifts and proposes but her mother finds him a disgrace and beneath her daughter. Sister marries him anyway with Emma refusing to speak to her again.

Wedded bliss is short-lived for the couple as Satin introduces his new wife to cocaine and, apparently due to career frustrations, begins beating her. An executive from Columbia Records is interested in signing the girls but Sister's escalating problems stand in the way of the group's future. A shocking accident tears the family apart but will Sparkle be able to fulfill her dream of becoming a performer?

The husband and wife creative team of Salim and Mara Brock Akil have utilized the successful Tyler Perry formula for "Sparkle" which features melodramatic plotting, broad, overdrawn characters, sitcom-worthy dialogue and overall, rooted in delivering a spiritual lesson. While this well-worn tale of a singing act trying to survive through fame, drugs and egos is watchable but the filmmakers play it much too safe with the uninspired results feeling more artifical and predictable than they surely intended. Lacking any visual flair or innovative ideas, this film struggles to justify the need for bringing this musical back to the screen.

As an actress, the young Ms Sparks didn't leave a deep impression but she has plenty of natural charm as well as being a dynamic vocalist. Ms Houston is quite effective in a supporting role as a mother trying to shield her children from the pain and hardships of a career in music although it certainly didn't appear like it required her to have to dig too deep. The real standout here is the British actress, Ms Ejogo who holds your attention whenever she is on screen with a sensual and seductive performance.

The true magic of "Sparkle' are the vibrant musical numbers that are actually sung by the actors, which features some of the songs written by Curtis Mayfield for the original film (and recorded on the soundtrack by Aretha Franklin, name-checked in this) and new material by R. Kelly. The only song performed by Whitney Houston is the gospel standard, "His Eye Is On The Sparrow". It's clear that her amazing voice, now ragged and hoarse, is no longer what it used to be but she still provides a quite moving rendition that's the highlight of the film.

"Sparkle" suffers from the same problem as most of the other recent remakes of prominent films (although many not at the time of their initial release) that are now considered beloved classics which is that by trying to update and improve, everything that made these films so special is completely lost. It doesn't help that today's filmmakers feel that they can sacrifice character development and story as long as they compensate for the modern viewer's short attention spans with hyper-pacing and amping up the visual effects. Also like the majority of these remakes, not many are going to have a strong desire to watch this new version of "Sparkle" again; they will, and should, simply want to seek out the original.