Sparkle (TriStar Pictures, PG-13)

Sparkle also suffers for literally not having enough Sparkle.




You can’t blame a girl for having a dream. All Sparkle (Jordin Sparks) wants as a Detroit girl in the late ‘60s is to get out from under the thumb of her oppressive mother Emma (Whitney Houston) so she has the freedom to write and sing her own songs. But since Emma’s watchful eye doesn’t allow Sparkle and her sisters Dolores (Tika Sumpter) and Sister (Carmen Ejogo) to do much besides work and go to church, that’ll be a hard road.
Actually, maybe the road won’t be so hard after all. The first problem with Sparkle is that most of the movie shouldn’t have such an easy time happening. After Sparkle meets young band manager Stix (Derek Luke), she and her sisters form a group to perform her songs. They manage to sneak out of the house, not once or twice, but night after night to show their act to Motown-loving crowds. The trio even becomes popular enough to headline at one local club.
It was always my impression that super-strict parents locked their homes down at night, and if anyone so much as opened a tube of lipstick in a dark corner of the basement, the parental rampage to see who was plotting escape would begin. I don’t believe Emma sleeps so soundly that her girls could become a well-known local act without her having any idea that they were going out every night. At the very least, some of Emma’s friends would have seen their posters all over downtown and clued her in before she wakes up late one night and sees them on television.
Sparkle also suffers for literally not having enough Sparkle. She’s supposed to be the main character, but her oldest sibling Sister, in her late twenties and chasing fame even harder, takes the lead on stage and in the film. A good two-thirds of the movie is devoted to Sister’s mostly predictable pitfalls-of-almost-fame story. By the end of the movie all we know about Sparkle is that she’s a 19-year-old virgin who thinks about music all the time. Unfortunately, when you’ve named your film after a character, that’s not enough.
Another sticking point I had with Sparkle was the simplicity with which most of the characters were handled. For instance, Sister takes up with Satin (Mike Epps), a local boy done good who’s also a rising star comedian. Satin eagerly confirms the worst stereotypes about African-Americans in his act to make money, but we never find out why.
At a time when putting your absolute best foot forward to prove bigots wrong was so important, especially for black entertainers, I want to know why Satin does what he does. The filmmakers never seem to consider any complex motives for this character, and because of it we can see his turn as the movie’s dastardly villain coming a mile away.
Emma is another antagonist, but it’s slightly easier to understand her motivation. As someone who tried the performer’s life and experienced the downfalls early on, Emma wants what’s best for her daughters. Yet she somehow can’t see that the tighter she holds on to them, the more they want out.
Speaking of Emma, there are moments in Sparkle involving her that give you chills. Not because they are so well acted or written, but because you can’t help but notice the similarities between Emma and her portrayer. At one point she yells at her daughters, “Wasn’t my life enough of a cautionary tale for you?” All you’ll be able to think about is Houston’s senseless death mere months after filming her role.
For most of her time on screen, Houston looks and sounds tired. There are times when her voice is so weary she’s hard to understand. While that sort of works for a character who’s seen hard times and is trying to keep her kids from the same rough life, you won’t be thinking about Emma’s trials when you notice it. It’s not the movie’s fault, but such moments do drop you firmly back into the real world, where Houston wasn’t quite able to pull herself out of a tailspin the way her character was.
Sparks isn’t given much to do, but she’s perfectly agreeable as a sheltered girl with big talent and bigger dreams. She doesn’t get a chance to shine as an actress here, but Sparkle is a good enough start. If she keeps going, I don’t doubt that she can someday join Jennifer Hudson on the short list of American Idol alums who have made good at the movies. | Adrienne Jones 

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