Why Does It Hurt So Bad
Sparkle is an “only in America” kind of movie.
The cast features Jordin Sparks, an American Idol winner who wears a promise ring. At the other end of the spectrum, there’s Ceelo Green, of Gnarls Barkley fame, who garnered loads of attention for a song which showcased a creative use of the F-bomb; he makes his big screen acting debut here in a very small role. Somewhere between Sparks and Green is Whitney Houston (The Bodyguard). This was supposed to be her big comeback, but she utters lines throughout the movie that seem eerily prescient in the wake of her premature death earlier this year.
It’s more interesting to think about Houston’s ghostly foreshadowing and the diverging and crisscrossing paths of Sparkle and Dreamgirls than to think about Sparkle as a standalone movie going experience, but, for the record, Sparkle is about the formation of a female singing trio in Detroit in the late 1960s. Instead of focusing on the music, though, Sparkle prefers to wallow in overwrought drama and caricatures.
That drama comes courtesy of Sister Anderson (Carmen Ejogo, Away We Go), who’s an extremely talented singer and an alluring performer. She lacks scruples, she has a reputation for being loose with the men, and she clashes with her church-going mother at every turn. She has god awful taste in men and, well, really it’s no surprise the abusive asshole she chooses to marry (more for money than anything else) turns out to be an even bigger abusive asshole after they tie the knot. Their relationship is the catalyst for a whole lotta heartburn.
The Magnificent Andersons
As for the rest of the Anderson clan, Sparkle Anderson (Sparks) writes great music, but her more demure personality has her taking a back seat to the overpowering sister named Sister.
The third sister (which makes it easy to form a singing trio) is Dolores Anderson (Tika Sumpter, Think Like a Man). She’s a straight talker who doesn’t take any grief from the guys. She’s also studying to be a med student, so when she’s accepted into a program, the group’s gonna need a new chick.
And then there’s Mom, Emma (Houston). She made loads of mistakes growing up and now she’s found sanctuary in the Lord. Of course she doesn’t approve of the girls’ nascent worldly singing foray. She’s been down that road and it was a road to ruin.
Unfortunately, what makes it all interesting is Houston’s real-life road to ruin. At one point, Emma says, “Was my life not enough of a cautionary tale for you?” The delivery, by Houston’s smoky voice, not the glorious voice of her vibrant, vivacious youth, is painful to hear. But the impact, to be clear, comes not from the storytelling of Sparkle. It’s from Houston’s own extremely poor choices. It’s similarly chilling when Emma says she tried to break out on her own as a singer and it almost killed her.
Dreamgirls, which follows the formation of a female singing group in the 1960s (sound familiar?), started out on Broadway in the early 1980s then became a big screen movie several years ago. Sparkle is actually a remake of a 1976 movie of the same title and word has it this new Sparkle is Broadway-bound, perhaps with the hopes new songs supplied by R. Kelly will be a major draw.
Kelly’s new songs are good, but they shore up the end of the movie, including Sparkle’s big breakout performance, and the end credits. It’s a clever way of ending things on a high note, given the bulk of the music isn’t all that memorable.
There are other interesting connections to consider.
Jennifer Hudson was an American Idol contestant who went on to bigger and better by winning an Oscar for her performance in Dreamgirls. She’s also suffered through plenty of personal tragedy, but she’s found the strength to endure.
That ability to endure is what makes for meaty performances; the latest boy band (or girl trio… or American Idol contestant) can only go so far by singing other people’s songs. Real longevity belongs to the singer-songwriters who live through the pain and the ecstasy and use it as the material for their own songs and performances.
One of the smart aspects of the Sparkle story relates to that same notion. It comes early on when Stix (played here by Derek Luke (Notorious) and by Philip Michael Thomas, of Miami Vice fame, in the 1976 original) criticizes Sparkle’s songwriting as being too safe.
Sparkle goes on to live through some agony, including the violent relationship between Sister and Satin (Mike Epps, The Hangover), a stand-up comic who made it to the big time and sports a big ego. That pain, along with her own turbulent (albeit a Disneyesque level of turbulence) relationship with Stix eventually inform her songs and strengthen her songwriting.
What’s not there, though, is a sense of joy. The overly-protective Emma demonstrates how a strict upbringing doesn’t necessarily lead to a life well lived. And there’s no euphoria in reaching out for that dream and achieving it; when the terribly-named trio Sister and Her Sisters very quickly go from zero to opening for Aretha Franklin, they’re also equally quickly leveled back to zero thanks to Sister’s coke habit.
During that whiplash-inducing rise and fall and rise again, Sparkle offers some dazzling performances, but the movie as a whole still needs some buffing.