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Movies: Whitney Houston Sparkles. 'Sparkle' Isn't So Lucky

♪ Ohhhh I wanna act with somebody ♫ I wanna steal the scene from somebody 



Leaving for the theater to see SPARKLE, the boyfriend wrinkled up his nose. "Is that that Dreamgirls remake?" he asked rhetorically. He doesn't care about movies (...I know!) so I just said "yes" rather than getting into it. Sparkle, like Dreamgirls before it, does pair an "American Idol" alum in her big screen debut (Jordin Sparks / Jennifer Hudson) with a genuine legend (Whitney / Beyoncé) to tell the story of a troubled female pop trio in 1960s Detroit attempting to make it big as Motown explodes. But the similarities are cosmetic. (Which is not, unfortunately, to Sparkle's benefit. If you're going to load up your screenplay with familiar clichés, rob from superior work!)

The immediate jarring difference between the two films is first noticeable in the Jennifer/Jordin throughline. In both stories the biggest talent of the trio has to play second fiddle to "the hot one" but only in the earlier property does the Major Talent bristle mesmerizingly against her runner-up status; Jordin's "Sparkle" is a willing wallflower, happy to let her sister (the crazy gorgeous Carmen Ejogo) sing all of her songs whilst shimmering in the warmth of the spotlight. Sparkle's sister's name is "Sister" and their group is called "Sister and Her Sisters" and the men competing dramatically for their hands (that's a euphemism for vaginas) are named "Stix" (Derek Luke) and "Satin" (Mike Epps). So any moviegoer with a sybilant "S" should avoid all discussions of the movie. 



The first few reels are all about setting up the game pieces. Sister and Her Sisters have obvious talent which the men in their life hope to either showcase or exploit, depending on how you read the performances. (Derek Luke in particular keeps you guessing about which it is for Stix and suggests that the man himself doesn't even always know when he's romancing Sparkle.) The first hour is somewhat bland with repetition but scene-stealing cameos from the late Whitney Houston as their very strict bible-studies mama, offer lively punctuation. You don't have to be a great screen actor to have camera-seizing charisma, and Sparkle knows just how and when to use Whitney. Her late film solo of the gospel classic "His Eye is On The Sparrow" is tough to take in some ways what with her raw staccato delivery in such contrast to her vocal legend (this is the same woman who held that note for that long on The Bodyguard soundtrack?) but no matter; it works for the movie and every single Whitney scene energized the crowded theater. It's almost like every single ticket buyer was there for one reason only. 


Once Sister brings Satin home to meet Mama during Sunday dinner, Sparkle the movie steps up its game. The dinner sequence is compelling in every way that counts for this movie: complex familial dynamics, racially charged politics, and the tug of war between spirituality and sexuality. But just as the movie steps up its game it throws away the game board insisting on being both a terrible movie and a good one simultaneously for the final hour.  

For every sharply acted sequence like that abbreviated Sunday dinner, there are sequences where the actors just can't act their way out of the cardboard clichés (Jordin Sparks in particular has trouble. She doesn't actively embarrass herself but the most generous thing one might say in terms of screen acting is "adequate.") For every piece of smart direction like one static overhead shot of Mama walking Sister right out of her house (richer in feeling than a series of generic closeups would have been), there are moments where the director Salim Akil just loses control of his camera altogether --most noticeably in two violent climaxes which had the audience I saw the movie with laughing with each use of slo-mo or weirdly affected 'This is A Violent Climax Score!' For every beautiful visual touch like a moment in the Jordin's "One Wing" song finale in which the dazzling hard reds of Sparkle's form-hugging gown are backgrounded by soft pink backup girl dresses which are themselves backgrounded by warmly lit white robes of a full gospel choir, there are plentiful bizarre or incoherent visual choices especially the movie's on again off again attempts at 1960s period. When Sparkle takes the stage for her concert finale it's almost as if they've left a time machine subplot on the cutting room floor because we're definitely not in the 1960s -- the filmmakers aren't even pretending anymore.

Finally, Sparkle proves herself no Dreamgirl with the lack of any showstopping performance. That's a difficult weakness to overcome in a movie musical. Still, there's so much rage and struggle permeating Sparkle's best performances (Carmen Ejogo taking top honors) and mother/daughter scenes that the movie almost works. But Sparkle just keeps making Sparkle duller. The bombastic uplift of the finale leaves a falsely bland aftertaste, like you've chased a brutal breakthrough therapy session with a handful of Disney Branded Anti Depressants. Shut out the pain. Replace it with big meaningless vocal runs ["Text 1 (866) IDOLS 06  to vote for Jordin Sparks!"] and a blazingly white perma-smile that never falters no matter what the singer is singing about. 

What was she singing about again?


Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

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  1. Dreamgirls took plot points from Sparkle which was released in the 1970s, not the other way around.

    Posted by: RemeberSparkle | Aug 18, 2012 8:19:58 PM


    EXACTLY. Sparkle (with Irene Cara in the Sparks role and Mary Alice in the Houston role) was 1976, while the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls started previews in December of 1981, coming out of workshops with Nell Carter in the Jennifer Hudson/Jennifer Holliday role back in 1978. Carter left the project in its earliest stages when she started getting regular TV work (the TV version of Cindy, Ryan's Hope and Gimme A Break) and films (the film version of HAIR, Modern Problems), and David Geffen started throwing money at the show to get it into the theater.

    Posted by: Jerry | Aug 18, 2012 8:47:31 PM

  3. This is an awful review. Not because it slams the movie, but because the reviewer doesn't do any research.

    Posted by: sugarrhill | Aug 18, 2012 10:09:52 PM

  4. Does it even matter if the movie stinks, so long as Whitney's good in it? That's all the majority of people are going to see the movie for, anyway -- a nice Whitney send-off. (Heck, that's all that would get me to see it were she still alive.)

    I still don't think I'd go see it in the theater -- maybe a matinee -- but I'd watch it on TV or Netflix to see Whitney one last time.

    Posted by: R | Aug 18, 2012 10:19:28 PM

  5. I am sorry that this off topic - but The survey you are asking people to take in order to make this blog better is too long and seemed kind of off topic

    Posted by: Donald | Aug 18, 2012 10:33:45 PM

  6. No thanks. I'd rater watch that HORRIBLE Glitter movie with Mariah Carey.

    Posted by: CC | Aug 18, 2012 11:27:45 PM

  7. Dreamgirls took major plot points from the real lives of Diana Ross and the Supremes. Sparkle also used elements of the supremes story but focused more on the family, drug use and exploitation of women. Two totally different stories. Sparkle being definitely a darker tale. I am speaking of the original Sparkle, just saw the new version. They've taken license with the storyline and really muddled it. The reviewer is right, the movie has great moments and could have built on them to be a film of substance but often chose to take the road most traveled to "ok"ville. Whitney was good, her star quality definitely shines through. Jordin Sparks gave a good effort but for the role of Sparkle you most definitely need to shine out. lol. Carmen Ejogo as Sister (Tammi is the characters real name) was dynamic, mesmerizing and stole almost every scene she was in. Tika Sumpter also gave a noteworthy performance. If you're a Whitney fan it's definitely worth seeing.

    Posted by: Coy | Aug 19, 2012 1:26:47 PM

  8. I came to comment about the old Sparkle, but I see other movie buffs have beat me to it. I actually have this movie in my library.

    Posted by: Jennifer | Aug 19, 2012 2:20:34 PM

  9. Save yer coins, folks. This film is that bad. I mean, not even a "so awful it's campy good" bad. It is just awful, cringingly cliched awful. Not even Ms. Houston can save it and you don't for one minute believe she's playing anybody other than Whitney Houston wishing she really was a church-going mother instead of a burnt-out has-been. Cliched writing. Cliched acting. I'd take the original "Sparkle" any day. At least it was sincere in its tackiness. This "new improved Sparkle" is just plain tacky.

    Posted by: jamal49 | Aug 19, 2012 4:18:58 PM

  10. Did you call Beyonce a genuine legend? Not.

    Posted by: TyInTennn | Aug 19, 2012 6:37:53 PM

  11. It was seriously the worst MOVIE EVER!!!! The music was good.. but that's about it. The movie felt like a lifetime movie.. the lighting, the costumes... everything felt CHEAP! ughh.. poor whitney was a mess in it too.

    Posted by: Ross | Aug 19, 2012 6:48:21 PM

  12. The Movie was absolutely superb ! It was the Theme of the Movie that registered with those who appreciated Whitney's talent. Nevertheless, for all you Haters,critics, judeges and jurors of the Entertainment world, we sure appreciate your patronage and ya'll come again .... Ya Hear ?!

    Posted by: Sylvester | Aug 20, 2012 6:48:52 AM

  13. Y'all don't seem to realize how long it takes to write a play and/or movie.

    _Dreamgirls_ goes back to 1975 when Carter was performing in _The Dirtiest Show in Town_ by Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger. They liked her so much that they decided to write a show about black pop music called _One Night Only._ Notice that it took six years to finally get up on stage.

    No doubt that _Sparkle_ has a similar backstory regarding the time it took to go from first idea to shooting the film, but movies tend to go much faster due to the nature of the movie industry compared to the theatre: You don't open your show on Broadway first. You workshop it and do out-of-town tryouts first. Film doesn't do this.

    So to say that one is based upon the other is a bit far-fetched. Most likely, they were independent projects that just happened to run into the same setup.

    Remember, _Dreamgirls_ is loosely based upon the experience of Diana Ross and the Supremes.

    Posted by: Rrhain | Aug 20, 2012 5:48:19 PM

  14. shut up i like it

    Posted by: alexa | Mar 18, 2013 9:47:22 PM

  15. WOW.

    Posted by: Brenda | Jun 12, 2013 7:39:50 AM

  16. WOW.

    Posted by: Brenda | Jun 12, 2013 7:39:59 AM

  17. WOW.

    Posted by: Brenda | Jun 12, 2013 7:45:38 AM

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