Whitney Houston's Final Film Mostly Unworthy Of Her Talent

If TriStar handpicked some of the best scenes from “Sparkle” to screen for potential moviegoers, most would be impressed. The film features a couple of strong performances and some wonderfully crafted scenes. At its best, it gracefully portrays the difficulty of interpersonal relationships in Detroit in the 1960s. The film takes place during the height of Motown and a time of heated civil rights protests, so the unexpected intimacy of the story is refreshing. But, one could just as easily choose from a number of awkwardly mishandled plot points and awkward narrative choices that would put most viewers off the film completely.

“Sparkle” is tangential storytelling, a picture without a clear throughline or anything original to say. When it’s over, it doesn’t end so much as it just stops. In the first half of the film, sisters Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), Sister (Carmen Ejogo), and Dolores (Tika Sumpter) form an all-girl singing group, managed by Stix (the ever-reliable Derek Luke). Their strict, traditionalist mother, Emma (played by Whitney Houston in her final role), has no knowledge of their aspirations – the girls sneak out of the house at night on a regular basis. Sparkle, while not much of a performer, is a burgeoning songwriter, Dolores is only trying to pay for medical school, and Sister is the obvious leader of the group, in skirts so short you’ll think the projectionist misframed the film.

When a wealthy comedian, Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), enters Sister’s life, the group begins to fall apart. Satin’s act almost exclusively panders to white audiences (think a slightly more sophisticated version of a minstrel show), but he has enough money to woo Sister away from her current boyfriend, Levi (Omari Hardwick). Epps delivers the film’s best performance, snarling his way through his role as a boozing, woman-beating sell-out. In one of the film’s best scenes, Satin is introduced to Emma at the family dinner table and the resulting passive aggressiveness is entirely fierce.

Regrettably, the only way to identify the protagonist of “Sparkle” is by its title. Sparkle plays second fiddle to Sister throughout acts I and II, and when the narrative yields at the 90 minute mark, the threadbare linings of the title character aren’t enough to sustain the rest of the story. Sparkle is a nice girl, a good songwriter and she’s sort of in love with Stix, but is obsessed with not disappointing her mother. Jordin Sparks is cute, but her screen presence is as powerful as a pocket fan and it’s difficult to buy her as the product of a single mother in urban Detroit – she lacks the toughness of the rest of her family.

Houston fares better, but her single musical number is impromptu in the context of the story and her character makes a silly right hand turn towards the end of the picture. The performance is fine, but it’s an unworthy swan song considering her decades of contributions to the music industry. Ejogo gives the most surprising performance considering that she’s a relative newcomer in her mid-30s. Sister’s character arc is tumultuous and mostly thankless, but she provides a gravitas that’s beyond Sparks.

As for Sparkle’s supposed songwriting ability? There isn’t one memorable song in the bunch. The tunes are remarkably low-energy and the hooks, absent. This is the biggest reason that “Sparkle” comes off as a low-rent “Dreamgirls.” The lack of star power might have been balanced out by a stellar soundtrack, but all of the songs here miss their mark. Even a cameo by Cee Lo Green (wrongly credited as “Ceelo”) fails to register. The consistently bad lip-syncing doesn’t makes things better in the music department.

Going by director Salim Akil’s thin resume (his only previous feature was last year’s “Jumping The Broom”), it’s easy to forgive some of his oversights. Furthermore, I can’t imagine it was easy directing his wife’s intermittently incoherent script (based on a low-budget film of the same name from 1976). “Sparkle” has its bright spots – mostly in the middle of the film – and Epps and Ojogo shine. But my frustration only grew in the light of these successes. The best the filmmakers can hope for is that the rest of the picture withers away from memory quickly – and that nobody buys the soundtrack.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: August 17, 2012
Studio: TriStar Pictures (Sony)
Director: Salim Akil
Screenwriter: Mara Brock Akil
Starring: Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick, Cee-Lo Green
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking)