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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Sparkle


SPARKLE (Two and a Half Stars)

U.S.: Salim Akil, 2012

I. The Finale

For most of the last third of Sparkle — the new movie that’s Whitney Houston’s swan song, Jordin Sparks’ star-maker, and a remake of the 1976 movie musical about a Supremes-style girl group — I kept waiting for the big killer-diller finale I was absolutely sure was coming.

Here’s the finale I saw in my mind’s not-so-dry eye: Jordin Sparks, as solo singer Sparkle, a Motown skylark/songwriter, does a heartfelt ballad number on a big stage, and she kills the crowd. Ovation. Cheers upon cheers. Sparkle’s mama, Emma (Houston) beams from the audience. Then Sparkle, a big talent and a sweet gal besides, quiets them all.

“You  know,“ she says softly, controlled, on the verge of tears, “When I started out singing, as a little girl in the neighborhood, I had two other friends to help me: my friends, my sisters, my best friends.” (A hush over the crowd. Sparkle nods to the choir behind her, and they begin swaying, “ooo”ing, snapping their fingers.) “We had good times, we had bad times. But I always knew that as long as we were together, as long as we sang together, as long as we loved each other, I mean really, really loved each other, and as long as we could put our hearts and our souls, together, into our songs, everything would be all right.”  (Sparkle turns to the left. ) “There was my sister Dee.” (Dee, played by Tika Sumpter, comes onstage, smiling, swaying. Sparkle turns to the right .) “And my sister Sister.” (In a skintight wow of a dress, Sister, played by Carmen Ejogo, looking weary but game, comes out, to enormous applause and reaction from the audience, who know that somehow this lady had to be sprung from jail to make this gig.).

The three sisters meet at center stage, face the audience, their arms around each other, smiling, radiant.  “And here we are,” says Sparkle. “Together.” (Roar from the crowd and calls of “Sing! “Sing!” And Sparkle takes her arms from around her sisters’ shoulders, takes a step forward and steeples her fingers together like a woman praying.) “But there was someone else in the house who sang, someone who went out on the road to sing and perform, and then came back to put love in our hearts, and music in our souls.”  (Emma, in the crowd, watching intently.) “And later on, when things got rough out on the road, someone who stayed home and took good care of us and sang gospel songs in the kitchen, and in the living room, and at church on Sunday.”  (Sparkle clasps her hands. The hum and aahs of the choir becomes louder.) “That was my Mama! Emma! Mama, won’t you come up and sing with us again?” (The crowd roars, stands, applauds rapturously. And Emma rises, walks down the stairs, holds her arms out and  joins her three daughters.)

They say their Hellos. A long look between Emma and Sister. Sparkle whispers the title of the song they’ll sing. “Okay,” says Emma, her face bathed in smiles. “You all gotta help me on the high notes, now. Should I stand between Dee and Sister?” Sparkle looks at her, with a look we‘ll never forget. “No Mama. You sing lead.” She touches her shoulder.  “Stand in front, where you belong.”

It doesn’t matter what song they all sing then. It could be “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” It could be “Come Rain or Come Shine.“ It could be “Oh Happy Day!“  It could be “I Will Always Love You.” (Help her on the high notes.) Whatever it is, there’s not a dry eye on screen, not a dry eye in the house. (Well a few, maybe. Maybe even some sarcastic sneers, but what can you do?) And it’s not just because Whitney Houston died back in February, before this movie’s release, under sad circumstances after a troubled, tabloid-blighted, drug-cursed life, and because this is her last picture. It’s because she was a big singer with a big voice, and she could do big, heart-stabbing finishes like very few others.

I was so sure they’d do that finale, or something like it. I was waiting. But it never came.


Instead, they took the big finale, and the last privileged moments, and gave them all to Sparkle, Jordin Sparks, all by herself, solo (but with a choir, of course) and they left Sister in stir and Sparkle on stage, and Whitney Houston’s Mama smiling and cheering her on from the crowd. They did give the late super-diva one big gospel number before that — “His Eye is on the Sparrow” — but, at the end, the spotlight is on Sparkle. Some people will say that‘s where it belongs, youth must be served, it’s her story, it’s Sparkle’s movie,  and anyway, who knew Whitney Houston was going to die — at least just then. But I still felt like something was missing, the last bell hadn‘t been rung. I know, Whitney did get something special. She got this movie, she got Ethel Waters‘ signature tune to sing, and that’s  more than some great popular singers who throw their life away.


Still, it’s a shame. Life’s a bitch.

II. Help Me With the High Notes

I’ve never seen the 1976 Sparkle, co-written by Joel Schumacher and directed by Sam O’Steen, but it sounds like a sentimental movie with good music, and with Irene Cara as Sparkle, and a lead performance in the Sister- role by Lonette McKee that a lot of people like a lot. (I’ll have to see her someday.) You could describe this remake — directed by Salim Akil, and written by his wife Mara Brock Akil — in similar terms. The music outshines the story, even though the story has some good performances and shining moments — along with the same clichéd, unconvincing stuff we get in too many movies these days.  Of course, Houston (who also served as an executive producer) is there to give the movie an added punch, and I just wish  she had more time and space and music for it.

Houston plays Emma, a somewhat failed pop singer who crashed and burned and, like many candle-at-both-ends burners, found religion — and then came home to her daughters: songwriter Sparkle, Sister and Delores (Dee). She wants them to lead decent lives and she’s a pillar of the church.  (Televangelist T. D. Jakes is one of the producers here). But they want to sing, together.

Sister is the front, Sparkle writes the songs, and Dee and Sparkle sing back-up — and they’re helped by Sparkle’s admirer and go-getter/manager Stix (Derek Luke), and Sister’s working class beau Levi (Omari Hardwick). But they‘re hindered by Sister’s future abusive husband Satin Struthers (Mike Epps), who brushes aside Levi, sweeps Sister off her feet and jams candy up her nose. Emma hates Satin so much, she disowns her daughter — which at least saves Sis the trouble of sneaking out of the bedroom windows at home for her gigs.

The movie’s Sparkle, Jordin Sparks, became famous on “American Idol” (which I haven’t watched and probably never will) and she’s an appealing presence who sings up a storm. Ejogo has a scorching presence, and her scenes, and especially her songs,  are incendiary. Sumpter has a more thankless middle-range assignment, until she gets to get funky and sport an afro. Luke, as always, is likable as can be. Houston does a good job as Emma, and she sings the daylights out of “Sparrow” — even if her voice here seems rougher and lower than we remember, in her glory days, when she tore down the house with the high notes on “I Will Always Love You” in The Bodyguard). Hardwick is a good, glowering foil for Epps’ sleek and strutting Satin.

Interestingly, the best performance in the movie (not counting the singing) is by Epps, who’s also playing the nastiest character — a rich, bad-mouth comedian who truckles to whites and beats Sister on the side. But really, we’re watching two movies here: the musical one, which is well-done, engrossing  and even moving, and the drama, which is shallow, conventionally clichéd and needs somebody like Epps’ bad boy to goose it up. If you like the music, and I did, you probably won’t mind the rest of it too much. But you might.

Then again, I think we’re wrong when we say the story doesn’t matter in shows like this, because the audience just comes for the music. (People say the same kind of thing about action and horror movies, and they‘re wrong there, too.) The story does matter, always, and when we start getting more great musicals again — and I hope we will — it’ll be because all of the movie will click and not just a part of it. The high notes as well as the low. The words as well as the music. The dirt as well as the Sparkle.

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One Response to “Wilmington on Movies: Sparkle”

  1. Jasmine Johnson says:

    In my opinion, the original was better! Irene Cara was great! Too bad she’s not in the new film, not even a cameo. She’s still making great music though!


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So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
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