Sparkle isn’t the spotless sendoff Whitney Houston fans were hoping for, but in a way, it’s a fitting final moment in the spotlight. The departed legend never relied on innovation. She never attempted to reinvent the wheel or work outside the box. She did exactly what everyone else was doing, confident she’d do it a hell of a lot better. Sparkle takes the same approach. It waltzes through the classic rise-fall-rise musical narrative we’ve all seen before and swaggers forward, confident the charisma of its leading ladies will add a sufficient sheen to the generic outline.
The confidence isn’t misplaced. The acting performances are spot-on. Houston, Carmen Ejogo and Mike Epps join forces for one dinner table scene that’s as riveting and well-acted as anything put to film this year. It, along with about a dozen other moments, are flat-out wonderful. Unfortunately, an odd pace, an overabundance of drama and a few gaps in logic cause noticeable dips in quality. The result is a pretty good movie that oddly, doesn’t contain a single pretty good scene. It’s a constant waffle between brilliant, very good, mediocre and disappointing, except when it comes to the music.
Set in Detroit during the Motown era, Sparkle includes many of the period appropriate songs you’d expect as background filler, but it also allows its female stars full length extended performances. In another film with another set of singers, that may have felt boring or indulgent, but here, it actually feels like necessary character development.
The title of the film might have you believe Sparkle is the story of Sparkle (Jordin Sparks), but in actuality, it’s the story of four women with incredible voices. The three daughters, Sparkle, Sister (Ejogo) and Dolores (Tika Sumpter) sneak out of the house to perform together at local clubs, while their mother Emma (Houston) saves her pipes for the church choir. At first, the late nights are more bonding experiences than anything else, but as the girls get better and better and attract the attention of a local manager (Derek Luke) and a famous comedian (Epps), the excursions begin to seem like a way for each woman to achieve the ends she’s looking for. Sparkle wants to be a famous musician. Sister wants to move up in society. Dolores wants a way into medical school, and Emma wants to prove she’s right.
Some of the women find their goals easier to achieve than others, but all are given sufficient screen time to ride out the highs and lows. And sweet Marvin Gaye are there a lot of highs and lows. From coke problems and vicious right hands to stunning performances and standing ovations, Sparkle always goes there. The majority of the movie takes place at some kind of emotional extreme. Luckily, Sparks (above-average), Sumpter (very good), Ejogo (great) and Houston (great) are all able to keep the majority of scenes from feeling too much like a soap opera.
Sparkle isn’t the most harmonious composition ever assembled, but it has five-minute stretches that are both eye-opening and enchanting. It’s the type of movie that makes you wish everyone involved would re-team in the future with some slight alteration in the proportion of ingredients. Sadly, this is it for Whitney, but as a swan song, it’ll be remembered as a worthy piece of her incredible legacy.