The original 1976 version of Sparkle transposed some older-than-vaudeville show-business clichés to the music world of the late ’50s and early ’60s in service of a story about three sisters trying to make it as a girl group while bumping up against crime, abuse, and drug addiction. The script, co-written by Howard Rosenman and Joel Schumacher, left no familiar peril unexplored, but it was elevated by its vivid depiction of the New York music scene, plus a bunch of terrific songs written by Curtis Mayfield, and performed on its bestselling soundtrack album by Aretha Franklin. Though the 2012 remake, directed by Salim Akil, dials back some of the more sensationalistic elements, it doesn’t otherwise do much to improve on the source material. Moving the action to Detroit and the calendar up to 1968, a smart setting that catches soul music at a crossroads, it features impressive period detail and some terrific music, adding a handful of new R. Kelly songs to the Mayfield numbers. But the stuff that takes place between music numbers in that lovingly realized recreation of late-’60s Detroit hasn’t defrosted too well.
It does look good, though. Akil—working from a script by his wife, Marak Brock Akil—favors a rich, lush look that pays off well in a handful of scenes, as in a trip to a record store that moves slowly past a row of listening booths filled with music fans looking rapt in their own private worlds. If nothing else, the film knows how to show the transportive power of music. Talking about it is another matter, though. Sparkle opens promisingly with a performance by Cee Lo Green, who plays an amateur-night legend about to get knocked off his modest pedestal by a pair of sisters: Carmen Ejogo and, as the title character, Jordin Sparks. Sparks plays a talented singer and songwriter who lacks the confidence to come out from behind the shadow of her showier, independent sister, a dynamic established in the first scene, when they explain to each another the roles they play in each other’s lives as if meeting for the first time.
It never gets any subtler from there as the film explores their relationship with their overbearing mother (Whitney Houston), a failed singer who uses piety as an excuse to shield her children from the world. This is Houston’s last film, and her performance embodies everything right and wrong about Sparkle: It’s a monochrome collection of overprotective mom gestures, but suggests a rainbow of human complexity in a superfluous, show-stopping musical performance. Almost as an afterthought, the film throws in a third sister (Tika Sumpter) who joins the act to pay for medical school.
With the help of an ambitious young music promoter (Derek Luke) with eyes for Sparks, they inch their way up through the Detroit clubs. But with success come setbacks. Ejogo captures the attention of a self-loathing comedian played by Mike Epps. Tortured by having won a white following by telling degrading jokes about African-Americans, he numbs himself with cocaine, then starts to take his frustration out on Ejogo, jeopardizing her safety and the act’s future. It’s the most pronounced of the film’s several unapologetically melodramatic turns, all of which would be fine if it found ways to pull at the heart. The film spends so little time developing its characters, apart from all that expository dialogue, that it’s like asking audiences to care for paper dolls. And Sparkle never delivers on the promise of its most famous song by giving viewers something they can feel. It’s also problematic as a showcase for Sparks. She has an appealing presence and an open, expressive face, but by design, the film keeps her passive and out of the spotlight until the finale. When the time comes, however, she delivers musically in a big way, so much so that it might have been better to craft a movie around her talents rather than dropping her in this creaky old thing.