‘Sparkle’ Review: A Thrilling Musical, Despite Damp Sparks

Remake of "Sparkle" has soul, drive and visual flair, but Jordin Sparks’ blandness keeps the excitement in check

Steven Soderbergh’s updating of “Ocean’s 11” taught us that the best movies to remake are the ones we remember fondly even if the originals weren’t all that great. The first “Ocean’s” mainly coasts on Rat Pack nostalgia, and the 1976 version of “Sparkle” is usually connected to the album of Aretha Franklin singing the film’s Curtis Mayfield songs, even though the Queen of Soul is neither seen nor heard in the movie itself.

The new “Sparkle” greatly improves on its source material: screenwriter Mara Brock Akil (a TV vet making her big-screen debut) keeps the plot but gives the characters enough depth and background to explain their actions; and director Salim Akil (the witty “Jumping the Broom”) and his crew give the movie visual flair while letting the songs propel the story forward.

While “Sparkle” often gets lumped in with “Dreamgirls” (the first movie predated the Broadway musical by five years), the two stories have more differences than overlaps. Here we have three sisters: Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), who is a brilliant songwriter but too shy to take the stage herself; Sister (Carmen Ejogo), who craves the spotlight and everything that comes with it; and Dolores (Tika Sumpter), who is happy to harmonize with her siblings until she can get into med school.

Whatever musical dreams this talented trio has, they have to operate behind the back of their disciplinarian mother Emma (the late Whitney Houston), who had her own experiences in show business and would rather spare her daughters her troubled fate. But in true “Mama, I Want to Sing” fashion, Sparkle attracts the eye of up-and-coming manager Stix (Derek Luke), and their budding musical careers are off and running.

Sister winds up getting seduced by Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), a self-described “coon” comedian who mocks black people to the delight of white audiences, and drugs and domestic abuse follow quickly. Can the trio keep it together when temptation beckons all around them? Will Sparkle learn to stop hiding her light under a bushel? And what’s going to happen when Emma finds out?

The answers to these and other questions aren’t too tricky to solve, but Brock Akil’s script makes these hoary show-biz clichés feel fresh and vital. And even though the film gives us a fantasy version of late-1960s Detroit (riots are mentioned but never seen in this gleaming, candy-colored paradise), the film zips along from one terrific number to the next.

Speaking of the numbers, the Mayfield originals stand out as far superior to the three new songs by R. Kelly, but the latter turn up so late in the film that they don’t exhaust the goodwill generated by the former. And no, even these talented ladies can’t touch Aretha’s hem, but they do right by the songs in their own way.

Apart from a few minor quibbles (Stix’s cousin Levi, played by Omari Hardwick, gets set up as a major character and then unceremoniously disappears for much of the film), the main weakness of “Sparkle” comes from the actress playing the title role. “American Idol” winner Sparks is a beautiful young woman with a great singing voice, but she’s too much of a Disney Channel majorette for this movie. Sex and soul and societal upheaval is going on all around her, but she's only willing to dig so deep. In their scenes together, you can almost feel Luke trying to be passionate enough for both of them.

Sparks’ tenuousness as an actress suffers all the more next to the powerful ensemble surrounding her, from the magnetic Luke to the carnal Ejogo to the wickedly charismatic Epps. Sumpter, it should be noted, steals scene after scene with her raised-eyebrow, take-no-prisoners deadpan humor.

It’s hard, of course, not to think about the tragic passing of Whitney Houston while watching the film, but “Sparkle” makes for a strong farewell for this troubled artist. Her acting is spot-on, from her tough-love for her children to her distrust of the secular world and its pleasures. (She also rocks a leopard poncho and a purple cape like no one since Elizabeth Taylor in “X, Y and Zee.”) Houston’s vocals on “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” may not equal her abilities at her apex, but she still brings real heft to the gospel standard.

This is a much shinier “Sparkle” in everything from the cinematography (by Anastas N. Michos) to its repeated references to Sparkle’s virginity (you can probably thank show-biz clergyman T.D. Jakes, one of the film’s producers, for that nugget), but it’s a bright and breezy musical that puts a breath of spring in this clammy late-summer season.