11:20 AM EDT, August 16, 2012
Warmly remembered corn, featuring some fantastic performers including Lonette McKee and Mary Alice, the first "Sparkle" (1976) starred Irene Cara as a mousy but learning-to-roar 15-year-old — one third of a late '50s sister act led by the hard-living smolderer played by McKee, whose character grappled with drug abuse, contended with an abusive boyfriend and battled relentless cliches in a heartbreak-and-triumph fairy tale whipped up by screenwriter Joel Schumacher. This was before the Broadway musical "Dreamgirls" pumped up similar material for its own purposes.
Now comes the “Sparkle” remake, and you know what? It works. The director is Salim Akil, whose ensemble comedy “Jump the Broom” likewise paced itself with ease and authority and showed similar wiles in the way of cliche refurbishment. Most of the stuff that’s new in the new “Sparkle,” written by Mara Brock Akil (who is married to the director), is shrewd and cleverly considered. The stuff that’s old is what people responded to back in ’76.
The action, steered more toward a faith-based community than the original, has been moved forward a decade and located in Detroit (though you rarely get a sense of a city on fire in 1968). Sparkle, played by "American Idol" champeen Jordin Sparks, has been activated in story terms, so that she's not simply waiting around for things to happen to her, and around her.
The new "Sparkle" writes her own material, which she must hide from her formidable God-fearing mother, played by Whitney Houston. This is Houston's farewell; she died in February of this year, after completing filming. The character of the mother is meant to be a heartbroken vocalist wannabe, who chased her dreams of glory when she was younger but ran into bad luck and worse men. At one point in "Sparkle" one of her daughters confronts her about finding her some nights "laid up in your own vomit." The line stings, and though Houston's character refutes it, clearly it's a link to Houston's own tabloid fodder image. In the film Houston sings "His Eye is On the Sparrow" at an appropriately melodramatic point in the story. It's a fitting reminder of why Houston, whose voice was coarse-grained but still powerful at the time of filming, became a sensation in the first place.
How has "Sparkle," the showbiz myth, changed since '76? No longer are there lines of dialogue such as the daughter lecturing her mother: "We don't have to be slaves to the white establishment anymore!" Mother was a maid in the original; in the remake, she's a prosperous retail employee and active woman of the church, living well but sternly until she learns to loosen up and let the offspring find themselves. It's absurd how long the daughters are able to keep their rising fame and sneaking-out-at-night a secret from their protector. But we don't enjoy films like "Sparkle" for their documentary realism.
I appreciate how director Akil allows even the heinous characters, such as Mike Epps' self-hating comedian, a moment of insight or revelation amid the story basics. There's a well-written dinner-table scene wherein Sister (Carmen Ejogo) brings the Crisco-slick comedian home to meet her family. They smell a rat, but Epps knows just how to play him without tipping his hand too early or too often about the brutalities to come.
Sparks, as Sparkle, has a warm and pleasing screen quality. She's a tad bland, but so is the character as written. She's meant to blow everybody away in the finale, but here's another thing about "Sparkle": It actually holds back in terms of technique and dramatic builds. That restraint may hinder it at the box office, but director Akil knows how to give his actors space and time to get a few things going on their own. Also, there's a great, simple tracking shot along a line of listening booths at a Detroit record store, and if you're old enough to remember those days, you may find that shot as moving as anything Houston or Sparks manages in this entertaining remix.
'Sparkle' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic content involving domestic abuse and drug material, and for some violence, language and smoking)
Running time: 1:51
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